Of mating squirrels, Peace Gardens and sudden snowfalls

The view from my ktchen window in summer. Today, it is whie with sow but I see the colour in my mind's eye.

The view from my ktchen window in summer. Today, it is white with snow but I see the colour in my mind’s eye.

Sunday, March 3

I slept with the windows open last night and awoke feeling wonderfully refreshed this morning, even though it was well below zero both outside and in my bedroom. I awoke once or twice and was lulled back to sleep by the sound of the wind chimes in the apple tree. Surely this is a sign of spring. The rotting snow is another sign, and while it reveals the ugliness of well-sanded streets before spring cleanup, you can’t help but be heartened by the length of the days and the activity of eager small animals. The rabbits are very busy and, I suspect, so are the squirrels.

You know about the promiscuity of the female squirrel, don’t you? She is in estrus for only one day, but she makes the most of it. She announces her interest by leaving a scent trail that can attract many suitors and she doesn’t turn any of them down. While they play chase games, she is easily caught and she will mate with 4 to 16 different males in one day. Scientists haven’t found any identifiable survival or population increase reasons for this behaviour, but since it’s only once a year who can say its not just for fun.

Some red squirrel female don’t even mate in their first year, although others will mate twice in one year but most mate once a year and bear as few as one to as many as five offspring.

This behaviour is interesting because squirrels do not have a lengthy life span — they are prey to cats and birds  such as owls and goshawks. Most don’t make it much past year two. While they can swim, they can’t swim indefinitely as I have learned to my sadness in the skimmer of our pool. I must build another squirrel and chipmunk ladder this spring.

This morning, my guest on my radio show on CJOB was Doug Hevenor, CEO of the International Peace Gardens. The Peace Gardens, which straddle the U.S. Canadian border between North Dakota and Manitoba, opened in 1932 in the name of everlasting brotherhood between our two countries which pledged never to take up arms against one another.

Doug spoke about the beauty of the Gardens and what he calls the symphony of an aspen grove and poplar forest in the park, where the leaves conspire to make wonderful, mysterious music. It’s a magical place, says Doug, who described how a mist rises in the park and often causes hoar frosts that glisten in the rising sun. He said that the weather there is unusual in that winds seem to swirl around the park affecting the space differently than other and nearby places. This may be due to the fact that it is in the southeast corner of Turtle Mountain Provincial Park. Here, the land rises to over 700 metres above sea level, the southern edge of the great glaciers that receded from Manitoba 10,000 years ago.

It rains and snows here more than in surrounding prairie lands and one-third of the park is covered by shallow waters, some of them small lakes that disappear in the heat of summer. The International Peace Gardens is tucked into a southern corner of this interesting land. I will revist there this  March 30 and many times after that as a privileged member of the Board of the Peace Gardens. I hope that I may be of use in serving this lovely and too often forgotten space.


It snowed . . . and snowed some more.

It snowed . . . and snowed some more.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

It snowed last night. And it snowed some more. We, in Charleswood, were blessed with 19 cm, a mark of pride for those who gallantly dug us out. The ironic Manitoba winner of the most snow last night was, however, Miami, Manitoba with 56 cm.

Already by late this afternoon many of the streets were bare and there were fresh puddles to delight children. The city says it will spend $4 million clearing the snow on residential streets starting on Thursday. Why? The sun will do it better and much less expensively. The benefit from the snowfall was eye-relief from the worst of the sand be-smattered snow banks.

Only 19 cm fell last night, but lovely snow filled the back garden and obliterated all traces of the pool.

Oly 19 cm last night, but lovely snow filled the back garden and obliterated all traces of the pool.

Now go back to the  top of the page and feast your eyes on sunshine from my kitchen window . . .



Deaming the summer garden


Above and right: My untidy garden by the little blue spruce. ( I forgot about the mugho pine). The Amur maple is in the background. The flower-filled space in the photo to the right will be left to bloom wildly for now.

DSCN0246 DSCN1791

The sun rises now by 7:30 a.m. and, when I am on my way to the radio station to do my weekly show on CJOB, it is just above the horizon. This morning it was a brilliant ball of burning fire shining straight into my eyes as I travelled east towards the studio. All around, the trees were dressed in white as the temperature is hovering around zero in the daytime, while at night it dips down to minus ten or so. It’s a different kind of hoar frost than in early winter. Now it seems chalkier, painting evergreens grey as the stock of chlorophyll in the leaves is almost completely used up. It is lovely nonetheless.

You can smell spring in the wind; but more you can feel it in your veins — there’s a lightening in my step, a singing of blood that seems to move faster. There a sort of urgency in the air. My thoughts keep slipping to the garden and what to plant this summer, how I want to renovate and do something completely new in the front yard.

I am a spontaneous gardener. No matter how much I plan. I can’t resist making adjustments at planting time and then the whole scheme goes awry. I’d like to be one of those gardeners who create symmetry in shape and form, but my gardens are always more sprawling and carefree. I have decided that this summer the front yard will be taken to task and turned into a tidy work of art. I even have a plan and have asked Jamie Coté who does this as a business to help me out. I need that kind of discipline.


Lovely lamium in springtime.

I am thinking that hostas, ferns, bergenia, pulmonaria and dwarf shrubs can be made to reside under the cottonwood and between the small Blue spruce and the Amur maple. I already have a number of these plants that could be divided, not to mention a couple of lovely little lime coloured barberries. Sadly, all my beautiful heuchera succumbed to the warm winters of the past couple of years; they will need replacing to add a few notes of contrast. I mustn’t forget to add some of the fabulous Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’ or better still, ‘Looking Glass’, the leaves of which are almost white with a frosting of mint. It’s about texture as much as colour, so I will have to have some astilbes for their ferny foliage. Maybe I could add some wine-coloured bugloss to cover any bare patches. I need to create some mass plantings to allow the shape and colour of the plants to show to their best advantage. With Jamie’s help, the plan will be fulfilled because I won’t be in there at the planting, changing my mind and making impulsive decisions. Either way, I can hardly wait. And I am going to enrich the soil this spring while we are waiting for planting time. The front gardens have gone several years without any help and they show it.
Right now I am shopping in my mind’s eye but wait till I get to the garden centres. I wonder if there’d be room for an elephant’s ear — I’d like the black one. Could I add a miniature water feature to keep it happy?
You see what I am doing here, don’t you? I am reneging on my promise to Glenn to remove the old cottonwood. I am enabling its shade and giving up the luxurious green lawn he longs for — right now the tree drinks as much water as we can pour on the grass. But the call of the garden is strong and I hope he will forgive me. Of course the more I enrich the borders, the more the tree will thrive and the more it will be thirsty . . .

The transience of tranquility

It snowed last night, but the early morning sun promises a brilliant day.

It snowed last night, but the early morning sun promises a brilliant day.

The snow is piling higher and higher on either side of the driveway.

The snow is piling higher and higher on either side of the driveway.

It’s minus 24 this morning, a relief from the frigid temperatures we have been enjoying, temperatures that have dipped into the minus 30s and below when the wind is factored in. In spite of the cold, it snowed yesterday, fine snow, falling relentlessly and building on the already formidable snow banks that line our driveway. Today, the weatherman predicts a day of brilliant sunshine where the fiery ball lights up the sky with a blinding lemon glow.

The snow speaks when you walk on it with that squeak-squawk song, this time a low and guttural sound because it is so cold. It is an almost perfect winter. The snow is white, not gritty-gray from sand — it’s no use putting down salt when it’s this cold, thank goodness. Driving is tricky. You have to pay attention because it is quite slippery on the streets. But our cars remain clean.

People are bundled; you can often see only a slit for the eyes of the bus people waiting at the stops. We seem to feel the cold more this winter after the balmy weather last year but there is a cheerfulness in their voices as people come in from the outdoors, saying, “Awfully chilly out there, today!” There is a pride in the acknowledgement. And we all feel vitally alive.
After writing the above, I drove to work, mesmerized by the sundogs that I chased with my camera. They are so elusive when I try to capture an image on the fly. It was very slippery on the icy-glassy streets, so the going was slow, but it didn’t matter because the morning was very beautiful. Exhaust fogs followed cars as they pulled away from street lights. The sun dogs danced on either side of the sun, which seemed so close you could almost touch it. January is the time when the sun is closest to the earth, although the earth’s axis tilt keeps us in the north from feeling its strength.

I drove to work chasing sundogs, caught here as I waited at a red light.

I drove to work chasing sundogs, caught here as I waited at a red light.


I had no sooner arrived at the office when my bookkeeper, Margot, came in and pointed out an accident on the corner right outside my window. One car had been rammed up the snowy boulevard and into the street light. The other was sprawled across the intersection, its front end completely crumpled. A red-haired woman was frantically trying to open the rear doors of the car and when she succeeded two young children, a boy of about 8 and a girl of 11, came tumbling out. They began walking in our direction, the girl holding her stomach and crying. They looked confused and in shock.


“Open the back door and bring them in where it’s warm,” I shouted. In a few minutes they were all inside, including the other driver who kept saying, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” I think she had gone through a red light, or perhaps couldn’t stop on the icy road. The little girl continued to cry and moan and now her brother started crying, too, frightened, I suppose. The mother was trembling and breathless.

We supplied phones and chairs and comfort and soon the fire department paramedics arrived. Some came in to see to the children. Others efficiently blocked the street until they could move the cars and clean up the debris. This was all done and traffic was flowing within half an hour. Inside, the children had stopped crying and mom was getting in touch with her family. It was finally decided that they would take the little girl to the hospital “just to be sure”, as her stomach was still hurting. The little boy had a goose egg on his head, but he seemed all right. In two hours they were all on their way.

It made me think, though, about the transience of tranquility and how it can be so easily exploded by a chance act, a split second of bad judgement or inattention. It appears that no one was seriously hurt in this case, but I can’t help but think of the disruption to their lives. The children will have missed school that day. The mom will have missed work, not to mention the funeral she said they were going to. The grandmother, who came to take the boy home, had her day turned upside down. Dad, at work, must have been frantic with worry — I could hear the kids talking to him on the phone. The family will be car-less for some time. The other driver may face charges — her car, too, was inoperable because, while it was in better shape, the front wheel had been broken.

And yet, when they were all gone from the office, the turbulent space they had occupied closed behind them as though nothing had ever happened. Our day went on as before and only the snowy tracks of all the firemen’s boots were left to attest to their presence. The snow soon melted in the carpet and dried, leaving no trace.

Outside, other cars passed unharmed through that space on the corner, creeping along to deal with the treacherous ice. The sun beamed down, flooding the world with lemon and leaving the sundogs behind as she rose. The day went on.

Soon the house will be all but buried in the snow if it keeps up.

Soon the house will be all but buried in the snow if it keeps up.

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.


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.


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.


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.

Funny “Tomato” call-in question

Doing live radio is always interesting and, as a gardener, you’re always learning new things. Here’s what happened when a listener called in ask about the strange tomatoes her nephew had given her.

Spring is knocking at the door

It snowed heavily on March 2 and then throughout the following week.

On Thursday, March 8 the blowing snow stopped traffic.









It’s a balmy 14 degrees Celsius today as I pore through the grower’s catalogues and write of what’s new and what’s hot this spring for the next issue of the Gardener magazines. The snow is slipping down city drains and seeping into already unfrozen top soil. What a contrast with just four days ago, when the March wind tore holes in our coats and crept into our bones, causing the snow that had fallen and piled up in pillowy hills all week to drift and sting cheeks and block vision in accident-causing white-outs.

You can see the water melting and dripping from the roof.

And now this double digit, bud-swelling weather! If it freezes hard again, I shudder to think (as my mother used to say) what will become of our poor friends in the garden. The 14-day forecast, though, shows this unusually warm weather continuing.

Perhaps I should go outside to cut some branches of forsythia in case the emerging buds get frozen off. At least that way, I can watch them bloom in a vase of water indoors. Forsythia is chancy here in Manitoba where late frosts can nip the blossoms of many woody plants.

Daylight savings time came to North America last night, at 2 a.m., and startled me to wakefulness at what would normally be five o’clock this morning, even though the clock said six. I rise every Sunday at this hour to prepare for my weekly garden show on CJOB. The lines were largely silent this morning as even the most ardent gardeners ignored the clock and slept until the accustomed hour.

My guest, Carla Hyrcyna, and I had fun just the same. We talked about all the exciting new plants coming on stream this year – well, not new, but exciting in their variations. The growers have been very busy this past few seasons improving on improvements. Now we have double everything, even cosmos, surely the quintessential single flower, a thing of perfection in itself. We have double poppies and double echinacea and double-double cosmos, not to mention double zinnias and double petunias and double impatiens. And now we even have double osteospermum, for heaven’s sake!

To me the beauty of osteospermum was its brilliant, highlighted blue centre. I don’t see the point of doubling that up and making it look like one of those absurd Easter Bonnet type echinaceas (remember when echinaceas were actually called purple coneflower? They are everything but purple now – white, yellow, orange, red, pink, green . . .).

Still, all these variations intrigue me and I will no doubt buy and plant all sorts of these eye-candies this spring. Carla has just come back from Europe, Germany actually, where she saw some exciting things. She was impressed with the use of orange-scarlet blossoms with black florals and with the fluorescent cactus and eye-popping succulents. I’m still trying to get my head around black petunias!

Glenn is home now. They let him out of hospital on Feb. 24 and the first two weeks were pretty rough for him, but he is slowly mending and gathering strength for the battle still to come.

At the office, Ian is filled with spring fever, dying to get into the greenhouse and begin planting seeds. He has visions of hanging baskets filled with edibles such as cucumbers and beans, which he will hang in my garden. We are going to do an access show on Shaw TV this summer – 13 weeks of ideas to fill. I am sure this will be one of them.

March 11, 2012