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.


Heavy heat and budworm

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

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

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

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

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

The insects are active this year.

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

Tobacco budworm c/o Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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


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


July 2, 2012

It must be the solstice…

The sun kissed the sodden petunia this morning for the first time in a week.

Today is the first day of summer. This morning is bright for the first time in a week. The sun has decided to grace our lives in her own honour of this, her Day of Days. She smiles on the leaves of the old cottonwood and they acknowledge her smile with a silvery shine where she touches them.

In the garden, flowers that have been hiding from the rain are putting out hopeful buds and the petunias are quickly off with the old blossoms to make way for the new. I love the petunias of today that can so readily shed their tired flowers without my intervention. Is there anything cheerier or more determined than the petunia?

Valerian shows up in surprising places, dressed in lace and lavishly scented .

The weeds have not been as reluctant to take advantage of the cool, wet weather. They have sprung up all over the garden, aggressive and quite large. I think they know that most of us are unwilling to go out and fight them when the sky is weeping.

The valerian is in bloom, waving in the wind from unexpected places. She is such a traveler and if you are not diligent in pulling seedlings in spring time, valerian will bound up suddenly, wafting her seductive scent at your unresisting nostrils. Then you must let her have her season before you can take the ultimate measure to deal with her. She is very pretty in her new summer dress, tall and slender with those lovely umbels of scented white flowers.

Blue, blue flax, an unruly little plant, but welcome in my garden.

Why do I love the wild and unruly plants so much? The flax is also alive with the bluest of blue. While it wanders with some respect for the gardener, it does wander, and so does the little white Anenome canadensis, whose flowers are enticing enough without putting out those irresistible seed heads that I can’t bear to cut. Eventually this anemone will wantonly expose bursts of eiderdown fluff to the willing wind.

I wrote a story for my local gardener magazines about plants that wander because I know whereof I speak. I have grown and still do grow every one of them and more.

Lovely Anenome canadensis has wanton ways with her seeds.

It is not just unmanageable plants that I am attracted to. The same is true of people. I am always intrigued by the rebels, the unconventional, the nonconformists. I loved the poems and songs as I grew up about the wayward wind being a restless wind, “a restless wind that yearns to wander”… and I understood how I “must go down to the sea again, the lonely sea and the sky, and all I want is a tall ship and a star to steer her by”. Do you remember the song, Faraway Places? I never did learn to play the piano, but I would pick out the notes to that song dreaming of going to China or maybe Siam, but knowing I was “burning to see, those faraway places with the strange sounding names that are calling, calling me”…

Now I have been to most of those places, but they still call as do the brilliant restless plants, the wandering souls, the minds that look beyond the obvious.

Oh dear –… it must be the solstice…

Pollen on the prairies

Petunia ‘Papaya’, one of the hot colours this year.

Last weekend, Queen Victoria’s Birthday, which we celebrate so carelessly, the pollen came down in drifts, painting with gold everything the tiny particles touched. You could see it drifting on the air like a fine mist. It left swirls of itself on the glass tabletop that I had just so carefully cleaned and polished. It collected in corners and on the edges of the paving stones like smudges of mustard. It clung to the lining of our lungs, making us cough and sputter.

Pollen collects in the crannies of the paving stones.

The Siberian elms are now beige with seed clusters as they rush to reproduce themselves. What’s going on? Plants listen to the beat of a drummer we cannot hear and they are soothsayers of the future to those who know how to listen with their eyes. Is there a very hard winter coming? Has all this pollen anything to do with the drought that we all feel in the ground even though it appears denied by the gentle spring rains of May?

Time, I suppose, will give voice to these portents, but for now, there is joy in seeing the squirrel carry her babies, one by one, across the narrow margin of the fence over the just planted baskets and under the cedar to a destination unknown. Squirrels are apt to do this, moving their babies from time to time, as a protection against predators.

The wrens, too, are back in the ceramic birdhouse in front of the kitchen window, ousting the pretentious chickadee that had tried to butt in. Now the tiny birdhouse rocks with her gentle movements, while he steals up so cautiously to deliver her a constant supply of insects.

As for me, I am happy digging in the garden on my hands and knees, rooting out weeds and encouraging perennials. I am breathing in the happy bacteria, Mycobacterium vaccae, that populate the soil and are said to stimulate the production of serotonin and norepinephrine as we breathe it in. According to some, the increased levels of serotonin can also make us smarter, or at any rate may improve our cognitive abilities.


Strawberry blossoms in the rain.

It has been raining constantly, keeping me out of the garden and glued to my computer. The rain comes down in sheets for awhile, then eases off to a mere drizzle. All the flowers look sorry and bedraggled, but the foliage sparkles with jewels of water. It dampens down the pollen which still lingers in the air and sends ripples of green through the trees and across the meadows.

When the sun next appears, the world will be lush with emerald and gold. The pretty annuals that I planted last week will overflow their baskets and pots and we can sit out to watch the wrens rock gently in their little ceramic house.

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!

New for the garden this Spring

Where I pore over catalogues and dream of gardens to come.

I have been searching the seed and growers’ catalogues to find out what’s new and hot this year. There is a lovely petunia called . . . well, it doesn’t matter what it’s called, because the growers will all have their own names for what is essentially the same plant. But watch for this pretty flower with a yellow base merging to a flush of pink and with pink margins on its petals.

What to do with tangerine.

It may not be the star of the show, though. Growers will be offering very intense colours this year, with blacks and dark, dark blues which they are showing contrasted with orange and tangerine. Tangerine has been named colour of the year by the Pantone people.

Now orange or tangerine is one of those colours you either love or despise. In spite of market manipulation, gardeners tend to have their own ideas and many of us are unhappy when we can’t find our favourite varieties because the Colour Council, or some other self-appointed arbiter of our taste, has decreed otherwise.

In spite of this, there is a lot to choose from. The breeders have been doubling everything in sight and, even though cosmos is probably the most perfect single flower in the world, it has now been doubled and re-doubled and I have to admit that the result is pretty alluring.

What else has been doubled? Osteospermum, for heavens sake!  The result is a plant with a fluffy centre replacing the stunning blue centres that were their main claim to fame in the past. Helenium, gaillardia and poppies are on the doubles list. I am sure there is more.

At the Essen Plant show in Germany, I am told they were featuring fluorescently coloured cacti in eye-blinding pinks, yellows and aquas. Succulents of all kinds are very much in vogue. The idea of living walls, both indoors and out, has captured imaginations and they are everywhere, sometimes utilizing a single variety such as ivy or mixing it up with a variety of tropicals or herbs.

But here at home, my garden has its own mind about fashion and somehow it never quite comes off the way it does on the garden fashion pages – but I am content just the same.

(Photos: Osteospermum; Hellenium; Cosmos; Poppy – Peony)