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.

 

Orchids and rosemary

Snow on plant

The first snow of 2013 lies lightly on the skeletons of summer’s plants.

It snowed last night — really snowed — for the first time this year. Today the snow lies in fluffy white pillows on the detritus of last year’s garden.   There is a new lightness in the air and in the eyes of the people  you meet.   The suspended time, that dark time between October 31 and snow time, is over. Now, when the sun shines, it will have help from the snow to dazzle our eyes and lift our spirits.  With snow on the ground, we can get on with the business of Christmas and, with that behind us at last, we can look forward to ever-lengthening days until spring.

As lovely and peaceful as winter is, we still need our plant fixes.

Last week I talked about shinrin-yoku, forest bathing, and its wonderful benefits. We can get some of those benefits simply by adding some houseplants to our homes and our offices. I am always surrounded by plants; my bedroom is filled with green, so is the kitchen where a rosemary standard is blocking the sunniest window and an orchid is about to bloom again.

Rosemary and orchids can be daunting plants to nurture indoors, but it gets easier if you know what they need. I have killed both in the past through my misunderstanding. Guilt drives me to take better care of these poor prisoners that have only my careless hand to guarantee their safety through the short days of winter.

rosemary and orchid indoors

Rosemary and orchid. The rosemary is happy, the orchid ready to bloom.

Orchids

The orchid is a very forgiving plant if you understand it, though most are drowned by over solicitous caregivers who translate their vision of “life in the jungle” into the idea that a preference for humidity means these plants need a lot of water. New orchid owners often intuit that because orchids are tropical they also need a lot of heat and sunlight. The truth lies in knowing where the particular plant originates — some do grow in the dessert, some in rain forests. We need to begin by trying to emulate natural conditions.

Most of the orchids we buy here are Dendrobiums or Phalaenopsis. Both types sold here are from forests in Asia; dendrobiums come from as far north as Japan to New Guinea, Australia, New Zealand and South East Asia and phalaenopsis from the tropical regions of Asia. They both send up long, slender stems and put out magnificent sprays of lovely flowers. The phalaenopsis flowers look like small moths to some people and these plants are often called “moth orchids”. The dendrobium flowers look like little butterflies perching on a wire. Both can both bloom for months under the right conditions, but generally bloom six to eight weeks.

You will usually find dendrobiums in very small pots, totally out of proportion to the length of the stems  and the large spray of flowers. Don’t fret — they like it like that, but when the roots start popping out all over, it’s time for a move to larger quarters. This can be complicated and should be the topic of another day.

Contrary to our intuition, orchids need to almost dry out between watering — the potting medium should be dry to the touch at the surface but just a little humid if you explore further.

You can help meet humidity needs, if your house is very dry in winter, by setting the plants on a tray of pebbles filled with water.

Orchids like bright light but not direct sunlight, although a couple of hours of morning sun in an east-facing window will be enjoyed. Dendrobiums like it cool. Temperatures should be kept between 12 C and 15 C at night and 18 C and 24 C during the day. Placing the plant on an east-facing windowsill should do the trick of lowering the temperature overnight as the air will be cooler by the window.

Most growers advise feeding weekly at one-quarter strength (although I never feed mine) and, if  you live in northern climes, don’t feed from late fall until the days lengthen in mid-February. Remember, without enough light plants can’t use the fertilizer anyway and deadly salts can build up in the potting medium.

Orchid roots needs a lot of air, which is why they are sold in slotted pots. Water at the sink and let tepid water run right through and see that they are thoroughly drained.

Phalaenopsis are the most common of the orchids sold here. Their flowers have a more rounded form than the dendrobiums, but otherwise they are superficially very much alike. Their care is very similar to that of dendrobiums, although phalaenopsis can take marginally warmer temperatures to 28 C in the daytime, but out of the sun. Phalaenopsis does not grow from a pseudo bulb or a rhizome as does the dendrobium.

The flower spike emerges from between the leaves and, when blooming is over, you can cut the spike back to just  about a half inch above a node to encourage a branching spike to grow. Phalaenopsis will naturally send out air roots when it’s happy. You can keep it even happier by misting thee roots to hydrate them. Or you can just water the plant in the sink being sure to let it drain well.

These orchids grow on trees in nature and the way we grow them is actually upside down, so they will need staking.

Rosemary

Moving on to the  subject of rosemary, lack of sunlight is the biggest issue for the northern gardener in overwintering these plants. They need five to six hours of very bright light a day. A southern or south east window is best unless you have grow lights.

A rosemary that appears to be drying out and losing its needles towards the end of winter is probably slowly suffocating from lack of sunlight and a subsequent inability to photosynthesize. No amount of watering will cure it.

As for water, less is more, but don’t let rosemary dry out completely. Rosemary is a Mediterranean plant, and it needs good drainage, but it does need water — it rains in winter where they come from. A terra cotta planter is a better choice for them than plastic or ceramic, because terra cotta breathes, and Rosemary are accustomed to light, airy soil. If using terra cotta you do have to be more vigilant when it comes to water. Rosemary also expects it to cool down in winter. It can withstand temperatures as low as 10 C if the plant gets enough light, but a cool location next to a window works well, too.

You can fertilize as the days get longer using a liquid fertilizer according to package directions.

I once kept a rosemary for four seasons and wanted to weep when it died. I had thoughtlessly moved it from its sunny window.

Overwintering people

Much as I love winter, the sunless days can be hard to take. Thankfully, those dreary days are few once you get past December. A way to combat symptoms of SAD, though, is through interaction with plants. The tender care you give those such as orchids and rosemary throughout winter is therapeutic for the person as well as the plant.

Still, I long for the outdoors. There is an aspen wood near my house that calls to me and shinrin-yoku works in all seasons. Being frozen doesn’t stop the trees from sending out health giving chemicals — not that we even know what all the chemicals are. Researchers in Sierra Nevada found 120 chemical compounds in the mountain forest they examined but could only identify 70 of them.

It is only 4:30 in the afternoon as I look out the already darkening window to see the patient blue spruces holding light drifts of snow in their branches which are still turned skyward in a kind of welcome to winter. The scene in the pre-twilight is serene and peaceful. The odd snowflake flutters to the ground.

It beckons. It beckons.

snow on smokebush

The smokebush kept its leaves that offer a platform for the softly falling snow.

Warm weather and wasps

Dec 26, 2011

As we drove towards Lori’s house Christmas morning, the sun burnished the wet streets to a blinding gold. It was wickedly warm, not at all like the Christmas day weather we are accustomed to, and this lent the day an aura of unreality.

Today, the sun is still blazing down shrinking the snow and exposing the plant crowns to the inevitable frost to come. I never cut my plants back until spring so that the stalks will capture snow cover, but even so, the sun has done its work around them very efficiently. The plants sit in naked rings, the snow shrunk away where the darkness of the stalks has attracted heat.

 

WASPS

Wasp (image borrowed from Wikipedia)

Yesterday, our high efficiency furnace sent us a disturbing message, “System Malfunctioning, on our sophisticated thermostat. The last time this happened, we called in the people who sold us the furnace five years ago. The repairman diagnosed wasps in the air exhaust pipes. He said he would hear them and wanted to cut the pipe open. His boss said, “No! We’re not covered if you get stung.”  We called in the exterminators. They said all they could do was to put some wasp bait near the exhaust opening outside and hope the wasps would take it inside to kill their fellows.

Frustrated, Glenn cut the pipe open himself (although we could hear no wasps) and he found nothing, yet the furnace continued to malfunction and apparently there were high levels of gasses being exuded by the furnace. “Buy a new furnace advised the company. “Not bloody likely,” said Glenn, after spending $5,000 such a short time past, and he called in the gas company. They detected the same noxious mess coming from the exhaust and ordered the furnace shut down.

It was late fall by this time and getting colder. Glenn called in another company. This one said, “There is definitely something wrong with the heat exchanger. “We will have to take the entire furnace apart.” Glenn nodded. What else could he do?

Several hours and a thousand dollars later, the truth was revealed. It was indeed wasps, but not in the pipes. Instead there was a tremendous build up of wasp bodies in the heat exchanger, which was completely destroyed.

We had it replaced and the furnace was repaired, but now, in light of the warning message, I can’t help but wonder if there were wasps hiding somewhere else in the pipes, perhaps awakened by the warm weather.

Ironically, the gas company has a rule against putting a screen on the outdoor openings of these systems. We may have to ignore the rule.

Now, if you are reading this from somewhere outside of Manitoba, you may well ask, “So what if the company has a rule?” but this is a province where the gas utility is a crown corporation owned by the province and they have a lot of clout. Their “rules” are basically “laws”.

This is not the first time their rules have affected us. Several years ago, they shut down our pool heater because it was within nine feet of a neighbour’s window. The pool heater had been in place for 25 years, but the rules had changed and we had no recourse. We have never replaced it because moving the heater the requisite number of feet from the window would put it in the middle of our back yard, smack amongst the roots of a Philadelphus that scents the garden every spring

I cut down the shrub this past fall because it was overgrown and woody. Who knows? Maybe it attracted the wasps.

 

January 5, 2012

P.S.  A week later and the heater is back up and running and, so far, no wasps have emerged, even though the Winnipeg temperature today is an amazing 7 degrees C (45 F)! The weather has, however, awakened a lazy ladybug that was hiding somewhere in one of the tropicals that spent the summer outside. We are all in a state of stupor here in our town with this balmy weather. The usual average temperature in January here is -17 C . . .

 

 

 

And Now It’s Winter

Snowflowers

One morning, just two weeks ago, there were snow-flowers all over my yard, clinging to the trees and shrubs and scattering over the ground. These were soft, fluffy clusters of snowflakes that sparkled in the sun, their glitter the only hint that they were snow and not some gift of cotton from the sky.

Now these fluffy bits have all disappeared, gobbled up by the real snow that will stay for the winter. It is not as playful. There is a hard edge to it that says, “I mean business!” Its relationship with the sun is stronger, more of a partnership. The snow rejects the sun with vigour, not succumbing to the bright rays, but tossing them back to the sky with an arrogance born of the knowledge that it is now the stronger of the two.

But, oh . . .both are beautiful.  And I am so glad to see the snow, to feel that hard edge of winter bite into the daylight, to see the brilliance of the weakened sun as it reflects off the snow. Now the trees loom larger against the sky as they sleep the deep sleep of dormancy, their idle limbs rimed with snow.

Under the snow, near the ground, small caverns are opening up. Crystals form and gather as they slightly melt from the heat of the earth, leaving little tunnels behind where small animals scurry about in the half twilight looking for food. Overwintering insects lie curled up in leaves and under debris here; juicy stems and half frozen leaves provide winter forage.

It is quite warm under the snow, hovering around or just above 0 degrees Centigrade as long as there is a decent covering of insulating snow —  a foot or more keeps the temperature constant. Voles and mice and shrews find it quite liveable. They create air holes to let in oxygen and let out carbon dioxide. You can find the holes – they are about finger size – and foxes, owls and coyotes can too. They use the holes to hunt for winter food. Ermine and weasels will dive right in and chase the voles in their own tunnels. Larger mammals will wait to detect sound or movement, and then quickly make their strike.

The Inuit call this snow layer the pukak. It can extend up about 10 cm or four inches above the ground. It won’t form in well-mown, debris-deprived lawns. Nor does pukak do well in moist climates such as that of Newfoundland, but here in Manitoba, in a perfect winter, in years where snow falls thick and fast and stays until spring, the pukak teems with life.

The skies come alive now, too, the clouds showing pink and rose in the morning and evening light. When the daytime sun shines, it takes on a curious, pale lemon glow that paints the air with well being. The quality of sound is affected and a crystal silence falls on a winter’s day. At night the silence seems deeper, as if we could hear beyond the shelter of earth’s atmosphere into the universe itself.

 

 

Nov. 27, 2011

 

The Last of the 200 Bulbs…

The last of the 200 bulbs went in today. It was cloudy and cold in the garden, which urged me to finish. We nearly always have snow on Halloween and even though the forecast calls for a warm, sunny day, old habits die hard and I am not taking any chances. Planting tulips under the first snowfall is possible, but it is not fun.

The last eight daffodils just before they were tucked away.

Yesterday morning, I slipped outside into the sunshine, camera in hand to try and capture a bit of the frost that has finally spelled an end to the remaining flowers. It still felt like October then, but today, November looms large and next week, the time will change and the days will suddenly become much shorter.

Clara Curtis, a lovely single chrysanthemum, covered in frost

There was ice on the pool cover this morning.

The plants are weary ready for rest.

I brought in the creeping rosemary, which had been sharing a pot with some now dead flowers, so I made it move over to share some space with a parsley that is still recovering from its onslaught of parsley worms this summer. I don’t know if parsley and rosemary are good bed partners or not, but for now, the rosemary is perfuming the kitchen with heavenly scent. Come to think of it, parsley is one of the partners in that 60s Simon and Garfunkel song, “Scarborough Fair”.

 Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
Remember me to one who lives there,
For once she was a true love of mine.

The song was based on a folk love song and I guess it was kind of a protest song in the 60s – I wouldn’t have noticed; I just remembered the reference to the herbs which made it quite lovely to me.

And now, outside the garden waits for its winter coat. Glenn prepared the lawn yesterday, hope in his heart for a velvety expanse of green next spring. He truly is a gardener – all lawn guys are to my mind – they just express themselves in green perfection. This year, I convinced him to mulch the leaves into the grass, saving his back and giving the grass and the trees a treat of their own making. He is quite entranced with this idea now that he has tried it. He added some seed and turkey trot, a local organic fertilizer, and was quite pleased with himself.

Pat-a-cake’s brother came by this afternoon. He is not at all as friendly as his sister is, but he is just as curious. He paid a little visit to each of my bulb plantings, sniffing them and trying to figure out if what was under the ground was of any value to a cat. He seemed quite intrigued by the scent of the grape hyacinths.

This cat was the only sign of life in the garden. Not even the sparrows are around just now although they will come back when the snow flies. They love to gather in the giant cedars around our house.

This is an impatient time of year. I begin to long for the hush of snow that will soon tuck in the plants and keep them warm through the winter. Inside, it will be time to light the fireplace and candles and pay some attention to the poor houseplants that are so sadly neglected, unless they are outside, from May to October. So far, the ivy I brought in is doing well and so is the Christmas cactus.

At my sunny office, I am having a struggle with mealy bugs – where did they come from? It’s heart breaking to see the little suckers emerge overnight and begin to sip the life out of these plants. I have tried everything – drenching the leaves and soil with neem oil this summer seemed to help, but I noticed the fuzzy devils on my beautiful jade plants Friday. I have a friend who swears that mealies can live in a carpet for years.