Saturday, February 26, 2011

Book Review: Plants for Atlantic Gardens

Plants for Atlantic Gardens: Handsome and Hard-working Perennials, Shurbs and Trees

As a gardener new to the Atlantic region, the title of this book, Plants for Atlantic Gardens, immediately intrigued me.  I was anticipating a book that would introduce me to plants in this region and author Jodi DeLong did not disappoint.  Over 100 of the most popular garden plants in the Atlantic region, from large imposing trees to flowing groundcovers were discussed.  Neither perennial, nor shrub, is left unscrutinized in the author’s quest to find plants that are both commonly used, and useful, in the Atlantic region.

Each of the plants described in this book is beautifully photographed. Plant features are clearly visible and each description begins with a large header full of essential information such as growing size and required conditions. Basic information is easy to find allowing you to compare and contrast plants.

After each header, the real treat is in the intimate details. The lengthy descriptions showcase the author’s knowledge and expertise of Atlantic plants. The page on lilacs reveals that Isabella Preston was the first Canadian woman to work as a plant hybridizer and as a result many lilacs bear her name. The discussion on sedums recalls the author taking a summer hike in Nova Scotia and discovering hardy sedum growing wild. The author also includes details about plant placement as experienced in her own garden. These details turned this book from reference material into a delightful read. One gets the sense that this book encapsulates just a portion of the knowledge and experience this author has to offer.

Whether you are creating a new bed or renovating an old one, this book will provide essential reference material for what plants to choose and how to place them.

If you’d like to add it to your collection visit the author's blog, Bloomingwriter, to purchase your copy.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Garden to Love

And now we come to the finale of the Gardens I Have Loved Before series.

It took months from the time we left Gibsons to the time we found ourselves in our new home.  We crossed the country, we visited friends and family, I looked for work and we searched, what seemed like endlessly, for that elusive home.

There were actually two offers made on other homes before we finally purchased.  Obviously those choices were not meant to be and I sometimes wonder what life would have been like had we bought a different house.

Life however had other things in store for us.  Just when we thought we would never find something suitable and wanted to give up Jody said, let's take a second look at some of these houses.  And we did, and there it was.  Why did we turn away from this house the first time?  No good reason really.  But we re-read the ad again and thought ... maybe.  An appointment was booked.  What I remember from that day is that when I exited the vehicle in the driveway I started snapping photos immediately.  And smiling.  I remember seeing apples and runnning from tree to tree excitedly while hubby and the real estate agent were left in my dust trail.  There was no question this was it.

When we moved in I began to see traces of gardeners before me.  The large cut stones set up to create a border alongside the house. 

This border created by the stones was then filled with bleeding hearts
The large rectangular bed with its intricate geometric pattern that must have taken many hours and care to construct.

After some of the weeds were removed the patterns began to take shape
The apple orchard planted many many years ago.

The peonies planted by the front door.

Not just one person but many were responsible for these improvements and we are but another caretaker in the life of this garden.  Hopefully our relationship will be a long one.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Gardens I Have Loved Before - Part 6

If you missed the earlier posts in this series please click on the links below:

Part 1                        Part 2

Part 3                        Part 4

Part 5

Although we knew we were eastern bound when we left Bowen Island there was one more stop before we could make our permanent move.

The last year we spent in British Columbia was in the community of Gibsons, located on the Sunshine Coast.  While we were still located in BC, Jody wanted to attend a school there that specialized in cabinetry.  Working with famed craftsman James Krenov was a once in a lifetime experience and we jumped at the opportunity.  We had no idea how fortunate we were, as the following year James passed away.  Going to school meant that we had to change homes and we found ourselves in another rental.  This house provided us with a temporary abode but we also provided something.  I became caretaker for the garden.

I don't know who the creator of this oasis was but I was in awe every time I stepped out the door.  This person had an eye for design and a sense of how to put things together.  There were spots to sit and contemplate.

Paths that meandered.

Plants that caught your eye.

Spending time in a mature garden and seeing someone else's techniques was a learning experience for me.  I loved the large square planters which were used consistently throughout the space.  I liked the grassy paths that lead me to various focal points.  I liked the sense of humour, the hidden corners.

I got to see plants in their mature state and realized how crowded a garden can get if plants are not monitored.  Some plants, like heathers, eventually begin to die from the centre outward.  On the opposite spectrum the trees were just coming into their prime.  They had attained height and girth, their branches were full and strong.

Caring for this garden was an exciting time for me because it gave me many ideas for the garden I wanted for myself.  There were plants that I was determined to have.  Others I determined I never wanted.  I got a sense of how planting too closely can make things tight later on down the line.  Most importantly it was just exciting.  Exciting to think that some day I too could have a garden this beautiful.  I just needed a home to call my own.

Less than a year after moving to Gibsons we departed.  We had a moving sale, we packed our trailer and got in the truck.  Filled to the brim, with posessions and dreams.  Headed east.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


Before finishing the Gardens I Have Loved Before series I thought I'd update you on life at the corner.   It's been snowing here for what feels like years, although I think it's only been about 3 weeks.  My beautiful roses that in June looked like this

Are now all but buried

Likewise our mailbox has just managed to keep it's head above the snow line.

You might remember seeing my compost bin a few weeks ago beginning to sink under the snow.  It's now completely inaccessible.  I managed to hike out to it but wasn't about to try prying open the lid.  

I dug a hole in the snow beside the bin instead and buried the contents of my compost pail there.  But we did had to do some digging today.  Back in the summer we piled all of our firewood in the driveway.  Close to the house but not close enough.  We hadn't considered that the snowplow would cover the woodpile in snow.

That's me digging the firewood from out of the snow.  An exhausting job.  We'll have to reconsider where we put the firewood next year.  Last year we tried the shed but discovered while the wood was covered, it was also too far from the house to carry.  Next year we'll have to try yet another location.  Now you know why I haven't started landscaping around the house yet.  We still have yet to figure out how to organize ourselves there.

After getting chilled to the bone outside I decided to come inside and ease my soul with a little glimpse of green.  The stems I cut two weeks ago are starting to show signs of life.  First to make an appearance were the pussywillows.

Followed by the rose branches

And then the apples

They're still small yet but just the sight of unravelling buds makes my heart glad on this wintry day.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

You Got Gnomed

When we lived on Bowen Island we were very fortunate to have wonderful landlords that we came to regard as friends.  The house we were living in was designed and built by them as their retirement home but until their retirement they lived and worked in the city and rented the house out.  They chose to build on Bowen because they liked the community and even though they weren't living there yet, they liked to spend time there.  We found this turned out to be a mutually beneficial relationship.  Often in summers we would take a week or two and go on vacation.  During that time we needed someone to look after our cats and our landlords would often do this for us thereby getting to spend some time in the community and their future home.

As we got to know each other over the years we discovered this couple had a love of practical jokes.  They often played jokes and had jokes played on them by friends.  While on summer vacation a decorated plastic Christmas tree was erected in their yard, on another occasion a gnome was left in a corner of the house.  We too found ourselves on the receiving end of their silly sensibilities.  Coming home from vacation one summer we found ourselves short sheeted.  

When we finally moved out of this house we found ourselves having to get rid of a lot of items in preparation for the 'big move' across country.  Among those items were a set of gnomish characters I had received as a gift.  I rather liked these little 'flower people' but hard decisions had to be made and they were put aside to be disposed of.

This little flowery gnome girl was part of a set of 6
Then I had a thought...

Before we left the house for good, there was one last chance.  In amongst the flowers, hidden behind trees, hiding in the shed, we left them.

To be discovered

when least expected

one by one

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Gardens I Have Loved Before - Part 5

If you missed the earlier posts in this series please click on the links below:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

For many years I was a city girl, working in a downtown office, but when I met my partner Jody things began to change.  We were both small town kids and while the city has its fun it wasn't the right environment for us.  So we packed up our bags and moved to Bowen Island which is located just outside of Vancouver, British Columbia.  Living on Bowen Island provided the best of both worlds.  We were close enough that we could continue working in the city but our home was a small quiet rural community.  Best of all we were able to rent a small house on 2 acres of land with amazing landlords who were quite happy to let me dig up their yard as much as I pleased. 

My desires started out small, with a couple packets of bulbs at the hardware store.  I was so excited to see those bulbs come up in the spring.  The daffodils were dainty and beautiful, the muscari were like tiny bunches of grapes and the tulips a bright shade of pink. 

And then they disappeared....  overnight. 

Oh those pesky deer. 

And so began my own troubles with deer but unlike my mother I couldn't build a fortress out of fencing.  It wasn't our property so my solution couldn't be permanent.  Instead chicken wire and old railings got put to use in a semi-temporary sort of way.

An old deck railing was repurposed as a fence
I found that deer have difficulty jumping into small spaces so as long as I didn't fence a large area the fences could actually be quite low.  This meant that my most precious plants went behind the fence but I began to experiment with so called 'deer proof' plants in other areas of the yard.  What an education that was.  I lost a lot of plants over the years we lived there.  I discovered is that if you live on a deer trail and have a half dozen or so hungry deer visiting regularly, almost nothing is deer proof.  Only the most toxic plants can keep away those four legged critters.  And even those in winter, when greenery is scarce, will be tested by deer pushed to their limits.

In addition to my struggles with deer I also came to realize that I had shade.  A lot of shade.  Those pretty bright flowers that I craved would not grow in my yard.  They would flop over, refuse to grow, or never sprout a single flower.  Initially my gardening experience was frustrating but I believe these poor circumstances made me a better gardener for I became more obstinate and insisted on finding plants that would grow.  I combed the seed and plant catalogues for any plant that could withstand low light conditions.  Annuals like the lobelia erinus and mimulus pictured below offered the bright flowers I was craving but could stand the low light.

Then I moved on to perennials such as hostas, ferns, columbine, toad lilies, sweet woodruff and the lovely great blue lobelia seen below.

But even shade loving plants aren't all created equal.  I discovered there was a difference between dry shade and wet shade.  I discovered that even though some plants are labelled as shade tolerant they have different levels of tolerance.  Astilbes for instance will survive in quite a bit of shade but will not flower unless they have a portion of sun each day.

The only patch of sunlight I had to work with was at the very front of our yard, right next to the road and thus I became a front yard gardener.
The first year plants were small and far apart.
At first I didn't think anyone really noticed what was happening in my space.  But gradually I realized what it means to garden in a front yard.  People began to stop and chat.  I was often embarassed, clad in dirty clothing, no make up.  I wasn't expecting to socialize with people but gradually I learned the power of gardens.  People were enthralled.  I remember one particular man stopping and telling me that he had been watching my garden grow over the years we had been living there.  On his walks into the village he passed by our home and he anxiously awaited the blooms of tulips, the consistent growth of the perennials, just as any gardener would watch their own garden.  He wanted me to know how much joy he derived from my efforts.  I was awed.  I hadn't fully understood the capability of a garden to capture other people's hearts and minds and now I realized that what I saw as 'my' garden really was out of my hands.  What I had put in motion became something that belonged to the community.  

Plants spread quickly in the 3 years I gardened here
Leaving this house and garden was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do.  We were so very happy there for so many reasons and when we had to drive away Jody almost had to forcibly pull me into the car.   It had to be done though, we had bigger plans, for even then we were busy scheming..... how do you pack a cat, a piano and a bandsaw to drive 6000 kilometres across country?

But before we left there was one thing left to do, something to remember us by - we gnomed them....

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Gardens I Have Loved Before - Part 4

If you missed the earlier posts in this series please click on the links below:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Although my horticultural education hit another brief pause when I left my parent's home it didn't end there.  For many years I livied in various rental accommodations with only a few house plants. But I didn't forget about gardening.  Instead I became attracted to other people's gardens.  When I lived on the coast of British Columbia  I spent a lot of time going back and forth on ferries and during those many rides out of the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal I often admired the following scene.

This is an unexpected place to find a garden but thank goodness for its existence.  Many many people besides myself have enjoyed the discovery of this garden and the beauty it provides while you are waiting for the next ferry.  It was a slip of beauty on otherwise bleak days of travel.  It's hard to see through all the greenery but this is actually a container garden.  When I first observed this space the plants were located in buckets.  Later some raised beds were added but as the plants have grown over the years the greenery has obscured the containers and all you can see is lush plants.  Watching this scene emerge from some old restaurant buckets was inspiring to say the least.

When you haven't got the space yourself you sometimes find yourself borrowing space.  Some people are attracted to allotments or community gardens.  I began to visit Van Dusen Botanical Gardens in Vancouver, British Columbia.  For several years I volunteered at this public botanical garden as a seed collector and teaching assistant, as well as lending a hand at events such as Seedy Saturday, the annual plant sale and summer garden show.  When I first walked into this garden as a volunteer I felt awed and humbled.  I worried that I didn't know enough to be accepted by these people.  The leader of the seed collecting group I belonged to asked about my background to which I clumsily replied that I was just an amateur.  To her credit the lady, who was a botanist, replied - but aren't we all?  How much I appreciated her words and felt welcomed by them.  There was a lot I didn't know but that can be said for all of us.  When it comes to gardening there are different climates and zones, and thousands of different plants.  Each person I met in that garden had knowledge that was unique to them and we were encouraged to share.  I could not have asked for a better learning experience.

A bird's eye view of the reflecting pool and entrance to the garden
To this day there are ideas that I learned during my time there that come back to me time and again. 

I learned that not every plant in a garden needs to be pretty.  Plain or, even ugly, plants are acceptable and even necessary.  Nature requires balance and we need to see plants for what they bring to an ecosystem, not just their looks.

I learned that you should never be afraid to change your garden.  It takes courage to remove something as large as a tree but it can be done and the results can be wonderful.  Look at the big picture and go for it.  Keep in mind that gardens will change on their own anyway so don't be afraid to shake things up.

My mother's lessons about seed bearing plants were reflected back at me through this botanical garden.  Seed bearing plants are resilient and tough, preserving a genetic code going back thousands of years.  A seed the size of a speck of dust can hold the miracle of a 100 foot tree in its grasp.  By sharing these seeds we are preserving something beautiful and unexpected.  Nature knows best how to take care of itself and seeds are nature's way of preserving and modifying each plant species.  Took lose this would be a terrible tragedy.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Gardens I Have Loved Before - Part 3

If you missed the earlier posts in this series please click on the links below:

Part 1

Part 2

I think from ages 14 - 17 I couldn't have cared less about gardens.  It was simply a chore that my mother insisted on and in turn, I hated.  I wanted to be at the movies or the mall with my friends.  Cool kids didn't garden in my mind.  But it was always around, and as a child you seem to learn by osmosis.  Sucking in that information around you whether you realize it or not.  My mother would talk about her garden, there would be chores that required help and like it or not I seem to have picked up a thing or two.  During that period of time we moved.  We left the cold harsh winters of zone 2 and went south to the temperate rainforest that is coastal British Columbia.  I had to relieve myself of all those sweaters and parkas.  We were in zone 8!

My parents had retired and built a home on a wooded 5 acre lot located on the gulf island of Gabriola.  Immediately mom set to work to make herself a dream garden.  I think retirement agreed with her.  Cedar, dogwood, fir and hemlock surrounded an open meadow.  There was a pond and an old orchard which included apples and plums.  Daffodils and wildflowers, like trillium and blue eyed mary's, dotted the landscape.  Initially some rocks were dragged in to shore up the driveway, then some beds were added and quickly the garden began to take shape and expand.  However, just as quickly mom had to come to terms with deer.  There was just no getting away from them.  Rather than fussing with so called deer proof plants fences were erected around the entire house to keep them out of the beds.

Brick and wrought iron fencing surrounded the front of the house
Even fencing proved difficult with determined deer though.  Babies were able to squeeze through the spaces in the wrought iron fence pictured above.  One large female actually shimmied under the porch and squeezed through the small opening to gain access to the flowers.  One section that contained 10 foot high netting was torn by the deer to gain entry.  With each break and enter fixes would be made and weak spots in the barrier were sealed up.

When the fences were firmly in place the garden really gathered some steam.  A fountain, stream and water feature were added.  More and more plants continued to amass.  My mother, who acknowledged her growing age and arthritis, attempted to find options in her garden that would save her time and work.  When she began her beds she laid down good quality landscaping fabric, enthusiastically telling me it would save her from constant weeding.  I guess we all learned something from that garden.  While the landscaping fabric kept the weeds out initially it became a giant pain in the rear end all too quickly.  While weeds might not grow from underneath the fabric it doesn't stop them from landing on top of the fabric and taking root.  Removing these weeds then becomes virtually impossible as the roots become intertwined in the fabric.  Moving plants around also became a painful exercise as you would have to chop a hole in the fabric to open up a space for new plants.

Another trick my mother used, and one that worked much more favourably, to reduce work in the garden was to use seed bearing perennials that multiplied quickly and filled up empty spaces all on their own.  The garden took on a cottage look after several years as foxglove, rose campion, columbine and daisies aggressively seeded and coated the beds. 

After several years it became a cottage garden filled with self seeding perennials.
By the time I moved away from this home at age 20 I had started to come around to gardening again.  Watching tadpoles in the pond, birds bathing in the small stream and feeding from the flowers got me back in touch with nature.  I willingly began to help pick apples and plums and collect seed from plants like columbine and hollyhock. 

My parents sold this house 3 years ago and I regret now that I didn't take more photos of my mother's garden.  The photos I have included were taken just days before they moved.  But I am thankful for all that I learned while we lived there and the memories I have of that home.  From that garden sprung a garden of my own as I transplanted and took seeds to create my own patch of paradise. 

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Gardens I Have Loved Before - Part 2

If you missed Part 1 you may want to start reading here.

When I was 9 years old we moved out of that apartment.  We didn't go far but in gardening terms it was a whole new world.  My parents bought a house with a huge yard a short distance away and my brother and I had visions of a dog running through that yard.  My mother had other ideas.  She promptly hired a guy with a tractor to tear up.  Two thirds of the lawn was gone in an instant.  What for?  A garden of course. 

Potatoes, asparagus, onions, broccoli, cauliflower and rhubarb were planted, among other things.  I actually remember playing hide and go seek in the potato patch as the plants were big enough to hide me (or perhaps I was just that small?).

At that time in our lives my mother worked full time as a nurse and she wasn't able to do all the gardening herself.  Instead she doled out the many gardening chores to us kids.  Hilling potatoes, shelling peas, sowing carrots, weeding.  I confess I didn't like it.  No kids like chores but I was particularly discouraged with these tasks.  I hated getting dirty.  I was terrified of bugs.  Being sent to the garden was misery and it was hard work.  Worse, I was working to put vegetables on the table.  Yuck.  As far as I could see there was absolutely no benefit to this at all. 

And then flowers were introduced and I began to see things a little differently.  I was given a small patch of ground and allowed to plant some seeds - alyssum and marigolds.  The colours of these flowers enthralled me but it wasn't enough.  Eventually my mother added lilacs and bleeding hearts.  The bright colours, scents and shapes of these plants captured my heart.  Then there were the gladiolas.  Those bright outrageous glads that my mother cursed each spring and fall, digging them out and then digging them back in.  I remember her stating she was going to throw them out one year and I begged her to reconsider.  They were my favourite of all the plants, unreal in their beauty. 

Years later  I planted bleeding hearts in my own garden, a reminder of my childhood

And so for several years I was highly involved in gardening, learning to sow seeds, how to hill and not damage roots, digging bulbs, watering, picking vegetables and cleaning them. 

And then puberty hit.