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.



Of Moonflowers and baby squirrels

August 28, 2012

The orange geraniums burn in the sunlight, dazzling the eye and etching their image on the brain. They are heavy with blossoms, loving the heat of this tropics-like summer. Even today, the last week in August, the thermometer soared to 32 Celsius (90 Fahrenheit), not bad for mid July, but almost threatening as we slide toward Autumn.

Ian says his moonflower blossomed last night and he brought in a photo to show me. Mine is still sulking. The luminous white blossoms are six inches wide and fragrant, he says. I am so jealous. I bought the original plant for Barb who saved the seeds for me and it seems only just that I should get some benefit. I check and there are still no signs of blooms, but the tree tomato has a heavy crop of very large tomatoes, round and deep red, rather than the black oval fruit that Ian’s research predicted. Every day, there are more ripe tomatoes and I don’t know what I will do with all of them.

Ian is making use of his – he is making tomato soup for the staff tomorrow. I would be happy to contribute.

The container garden is a jungle, but the perennials are panting for water and I have been too distracted this year to keep them properly watered. So the poor things have burned edges and look ill as they lose their gloss and sheen from being parched. I am ashamed of my neglect, but on the bright side, Glenn has completed his chemo this week and now it is all up hill (or downhill? I never know which is best) for us as he recovers. Next year, darling plants, I promise to do better, but even you have to take second place to dearest Glenn.


Baby Red
August 30, 2012

Ian came over to mow the lawn for Glenn. It was an unbelievable 35 degrees C and we were resting in the shade when I saw a movement behind Ian’s chair. I thought it was a chipmunk, but no, it was a baby red squirrel.

Soon he was scampering around our feet, growing bolder and bolder, while Mama chattered with great concern from high up in the fir tree behind the chair where I sit and write. Time after time, she nudged him back up the tree and time after time, he escaped her careful concern and returned to the patio where he could get a good look at these strange, two-legged beings.

I was mesmerized but finally got enough sense to run and get my cameras. Mama had finally convinced Baby that she has had enough and had him cornered high up in the tree, but Ian could still see them.  I tossed him the still camera and zoomed in with my video cam to get a good view. Baby wanted a drink, but Mama said No, settle down and go to sleep…


Oh, my.  My heart is pounding. I just heard a splash and there was Little Red in the pool swimming for all she is worth, desperately trying to get out. We used to have a chipmunk ladder in the pool to allow little beings to escape, but it was gone. I called out, “Hang on. Hang on, I’m coming,” as if the little animal had any clue as to what I meant. I ran frantically toward the pool looking for the net and found it after what seemed forever. Little Red was already tiring, but I was able to get the net under her, only to have her jump out – and right back into the water. This happened three times, then I was finally able to move fast enough so that this time when she jumped, it was onto firm ground.

The poor little thing was drenched, her tail hanging heavy with water behind her as she bounded up the cedar tree and along the fence to wherever it is that she has her nest. I’m so glad I was here to help her.


Have just filled the bird feeders, Nyger for the finches and a good seed mix for the rest and the special black sunflower seeds that they all adore. I boiled a quarter cup of sugar in a cup of water for two minutes and am waiting for that to cool so that I can replenish the empty nectar feeder for the hummingbirds.

In spite of all our fun together, Little Red and her baby are still banned from the black oilseed feeder – maybe I’ll buy them some peanuts instead.

Pretty striped morning glory

The garden is filled with butterflies today, orange fritillaries and black admirals. I had only one parsley worm this year even though I planted extra parsley – everything has its season and I guess this not a good one for swallowtails – they may need less heat.

It still feels so much like midsummer, but the other night, the night of the blue moon, we saw a flock of ducks heading for the river, flying low and loud.

No sign of the moonflower blossom yet, but a surprise. Over in one of the cone shaped pots, a pretty striped morning glory has unexpectedly appeared, a gift perhaps from a bird, or maybe even the squirrel who often leaves seeds in my planters.

Oh! There’s Little Red. She seems quite recovered from her ordeal! There are gleanings to be had from my feeder filling. And who can resist gleanings?

Spring is dilly dallying

Aprinl 22, 2012

Tulips poked up inquisitive heads long before they were prepared to allow their blossoms to come up.

In spite of the very early spring this year, the greening of the trees is still to come. The lilac, which showed such promise two weeks ago, is still showing promise, but that is all. The flush of green is still just a flush of green on the lilac and a few other overeager trees in the city.

Our native plants have an innate intelligence about these things – even though conditions appear optimal for starting, our trees don’t get too excited until it’s time. It’s only the imports and the hybrids that can’t wait – and they end up being burned – or frost-bitten, rather – for their hurry. Even the lilac, although most would think it to be native here, is not. It was imported from Europe by our early settlers who left their lovely remnants on farm homesteads across the prairies. Lilacs can live to be 200 years old and there are groves in odd places throughout the province that must be well over 100. It is the newer hybrids that have been rushing into leaf, not as savvy yet about how fickle our spring weather can be.

Today will be a lovely day, though, and folks might be tricked into thinking that it is time to plant. It is not. Be guided by your local garden centre which has been holding back their annuals and perennials until the second week in May, when it may be safe enough to begin planting out.  And even though plants, such as petunias, can withstand quite a bit of frost, Gail Braun, who grows the most spectacular potted plants, advises that she waits until the first week of June to put her plants out. She says that even though many will survive the odd late frost, it sets them back and they never fully recover.

That brings me to the issue of the plants in the big box stores. They have been hurried along and are flush with leaves and blooms much earlier than the local garden centres, but don’t rush into anything yet. And if you simply cannot resist, at least store your plants in a garage and take them out only for a few hours during the warmest part of the day for the next couple of weeks.

The trouble with bargain cedars is keeping them alive.

The box stores also sell six-foot cedars at a very low price and I see many homeowners who have been enticed to buy and plant them, only to be faced with a row of brown, lifeless sticks this spring.  Save yourself some heartache and money in the long run and go to your local garden centre where you can be sure of getting a plant with a viable root ball that has been well cared for throughout the season. Your garden centre will advise you on the best way to plant your new trees and tell you to water them well all this season and especially before freeze up this fall. They will also suggest putting up a proper sun and windscreen this yea,r and perhaps, for a couple of years after, that to prevent needle drying if the trees have a southern exposure. Most garden centres will also guarantee their trees for the first year if you follow their directions and many will also come out and plant the tree – properly – for you.

Happy Bacteria
Meanwhile, I need the garden. I need the chance to get back down on my knees, to dig in the dirt and tug at the weeds all the time breathing happy thoughts into my body. The happiness comes, they say, from a bacteria found in the soil, Mycobacterium vaccae, literally the happy bacteria which has the ability to turn on serotonin production from the tryptophan in your gut. Did you know, by the way, that 90% of the serotonin in your body resides in your gut?

So we gardeners have wisely, but unknowingly, been soaking up this happiness trigger for years. Have you ever known a grouchy gardener?

Apparently, gardening is also a good way to stave off dementia. Strength and resistance training both encourage the “growth factor”. A growth factor is a protein or steroid hormone capable of stimulating cellular growth. When we gardener squat, and lift and lunge and carry, we are encouraging this activity which has been shown by a Vancouver Hip and Health group to reduce symptoms of dementia in older women.

Who knew?

Spring rain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are doing a television show

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

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

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

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.”

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.