Sunday, September 30, 2012

Time Marches On

The inevitable reds of fall
It's hard to believe we're deep into fall already.  Feels like just yesterday I returned from summer vacation.

Cheery blooms and bright colours greeted me August
It was dry and dusty in August, dirt hard as a rock after two months with next to no rain.  Digging weeds and moving plants was next to impossible.  Hurricanes Isaac and Leslie changed that.  While we didn't suffer any damaging winds this year we did get the rain, which was desperately needed.  In fact we received as much rain in one single afternoon as we had for the months of July and August combined.

Much needed rain finally brought forth dahlia blooms
And now on the final day of September I'm wishing the rain would stop already!  Mother nature has turned around and for all the rain we missed during the summer, it is pounding down now.  It does mean there is a flush of blooms which is always wonderful.  This Limelight Hydrangea is pushing out new lime green blooms next to aged pink ones.

Limelight Hydrangea with new and old blooms side by side
But it also means getting work done in the garden is difficult.  The ground is no longer hard packed but muddy.  Even on days when it isn't raining there is not much to be done as I'm causing more of a mess than anything.

Even the plants are having some difficulty.  Rust has shown up on some plants and these monkshood in the photo above appear to have almost mouldy looking tops on the flowers.

I'm hoping for a little relief come October.  A few clear days on a weekend or two would be divine to finish cleaning up the vegetable garden.  Rather than ignoring this chore, as I did last year, I'm hoping to get the veggie garden tucked up proper this season.  Hopefully that will mean come spring I'll be ready to get a headstart on cool season vegetables.

A number of beds have been cleaned out
and 'bedded' down but there's still lots left to do
Despite my best intentions I never did finish my flower garden this season.  Too dry conditions made edging and digging impossible and now muddy conditions are also making the same chore quite difficult.

The black mulch clearly shows what got done and what didn't.  This photo is looking back at the 'finished' portion.  Although in all honesty, I have gone back to the supposedly finished side on numerous occasions and moved plants that I can already see were planted too close.  I planted bulbs in the rain recently too.  Adding Golden Echo daffodils, tulips and Allium roseum to the mix.  This project will likely have to be finished next season though as along with rain we are running out of daylight hours.

Much like the bees swarming the Hummingbird Mint these days it's a race to see how much can be accomplished while the light and warmth still remain.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Heirloom Tomato Review

What we lacked in apples this year we surely made up for in tomatoes.  It has been a whirlwind of fruit this past month but it's finally coming to a close.  I was very fortunate this year to receive a huge volume of seeds from some very generous people.  Huge thanks for Brenda @ Gardeningbren and my cousin Diane.  In addition to having seeds gifted to me I also purchased seeds from Heritage Harvest Seed in Manitoba.  I ended up with so many varieties that I was not able to plant everything so it looks like I will have to trial more varieties next year too.

I concentrated on heirloom tomatoes this year as I keep hearing what a difference in taste these have.  I certainly wasn't disappointed.  I grew 8 varieties this year and all had positives and negatives.

Andrina cherry tomato
These red cherry tomatoes were described as small plants perfect for containers and they lived up to that description.  I was looking for something to grow on the deck for easy picking and these plants did well, growing less than a foot high and maturing early.  However, that's about the only good thing I have to say.  It started out poorly for me with bad germination rates which resulted in only two plants surviving.  Those two plants didn't put out a lot of fruit and that fruit has a very strong tomato taste.  Not a bad thing but I like my cherry tomatoes sweet.  Jody ate them but it was a pass for me.

Andrina Tomatoes
Mexico Midget
Thank goodness I was given seeds for this wonderful plant as it more than made up for the deficit of cherry tomatoes.  These seeds also had poor germination rates but thankfully all you need is one because this guy gets BIG.  In fact, that is probably the only negative I had.  I cut this plant back hard in July to try and keep it under control but it still has managed to cover an area about 8 feet long and 5 feet wide, growing overtop of other tomato plants, marigolds and basil.  I intend to grow this again but will be giving it more room next time as well as cutting it back.  On the positive side this plant is prolific, fruits early and is tasty.  I've been picking tomatoes off this plant every single day for a month and it's not slowing down.  In fact, every time I pick my hands are covered in a thick layer of yellow pollen.  The fruit is about the size of a blueberry (as seen below) and sweet as can be.  Perfect for salads and snacking.

A pint of blueberries on the left and Mexico Midgets on the right
The next tomato to ripen was Bison and this was a hit all around.  From my perspective they had excellent germination, were generally healthy plants that didn't grow too big, plenty of flowers, and early mid-sized fruit.  Jody (the tomato lover and expert taste tester) says he liked them because they were somewhat sweet and good for just about anything. You can slice them on sandwiches, dice them up on salads, put them in soups, chili or pasta.  Just an easy all around tomato.  The only negative was they had a slight touch of blossom end rot but it didn't affect all the fruit and didn't really affect harvest all that much.  Will definitely grow this again.

Left to right - Bison, Black Plum, Andrina in the back,
Martino's Roma and Mexico Midget in the front
Black Plum
Next to ripen after the Bison were these small size plum tomatoes.  It was difficult to guess when they were ripe at first as the shoulders remained dark green and the bottoms have a mottled look but once we got the hang of it we were hooked.  These are a must have now.  Out of this world taste, very smoky and strong.  I liked them in salads and added them to soups and salsa for an extra hit of flavour.  Germination wasn't too bad and the plants grew quite well.  Unfortunately this plant had a lot of trouble with blossom end rot.  We threw out a lot of tomatoes but were able to eat enough that I would still grow this again.

This plant gave me grief right from the start.  Poor germination, refusing to grow up it's stake, blossom end rot, cracking, small sized fruit.  This is a Nova Scotia heritage variety so I had high hopes but the advertised large beefsteak tomatoes were not to be in my garden.  They were a very sweet tomato (Jody really liked these) but smaller than the mid-sized Bison and I barely got a half dozen fruits off this vine throughout the whole season.  I won't be trying these again.

Martino's Roma
Great germination rates and heavy production are what comes to mind with this plant.  These tomatoes were slightly later than the other varieties but once they started they kept me very busy for weeks (in fact I'm still collecting fruit from them!)  Large trusses of fruit hang off these plants and they make a great base for soups and stews.  The negatives are there was a small touch of blossom end rot and the fruit is not that tasty.  Some of my co-workers disagreed, saying they liked them very much and I'm just spoiled by having so many other varieties to choose from.  That may be true but the flavour just isn't there for me.  However, if you want large quantities of tomatoes for cooking these were great value.  I still have lots of seeds so will likely grow these again as I'm terribly fond of tomato soup.

Unripened roma tomatoes in mid-August
Rosella Purple Dwarf
The last tomatoes to ripen were the big beefsteaks.  Although the plant is small (dwarf size) Rosella is a very large tomato.  I didn't have great germination from these plants and one plant (a runt) just outright refused to grow and produce fruit.  But the one plant that did produce gave us some very interesting fruit.

Rosella is huge compared to Bison
There was a touch of blossom end rot affecting this plant as well but I still managed a good harvest and the fruits have a very strong flavour similar to Black Plum.  I used them in the same way, adding them to sauces for an extra zap of tomato flavour.  My only issue with such a large tomato is they were hard to use up unless I was cooking.  Of the two dark tomatoes I preferred Black Plum but I won't rule out growing these again.

German Gold
The last tomato to ripen, we have only begun eating these in the last week.  They are another big beefsteak and bright yellow colour as the name suggests.

Rosella Purple on left and German Gold on right
Jody says he's colour biased and thinks they taste different simply because they look different.  He figures they would taste like any other tomato if you couldn't see them.  I disagree, I think there's a milder flavour and a meatier texture that has nothing to do with what my eyes are telling me.  I put these in a spicy chicken soup and loved how it complimented the flavours.  Again though, I find the size of these conducive to cooking rather than just plain eating.  They're simply too big to use in salads or sandwiches.  That said I'm not sure I'll grow them again.  We had a fantastic summer for growing tomatoes and these are still taking their time to ripen.  On a less than perfect year I don't think I would be able to harvest anything from such a late plant.  As well, I had difficulty managing these plants as the fruit bent and broke stems.  I might look for a slightly smaller and earlier yellow tomato in future.

Well that's a wrap for this year folks.  In the next couple of weeks the vines will be pulled out of the ground and I'll be cleaning up the garden in preparation for next spring's trials.  I have about a dozen more varieties I didn't get to grow this year so I look forward to doing this all over again next season.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Why are my Apples Falling Off the Tree?

I returned home from my vacation in mid-August and was surprised to see apples on the ground.

Why are those apples on the ground in August?
While it is close to apple harvest season, most of our crop doesn't start to ripen until late September.  This was a full month ahead of schedule.  A quick check confirmed it wasn't just one tree either.  It seems every tree in the orchard (over 20 trees) were losing their loads.

It's been a funny summer, hot and desperately dry.  Was it possible the apples had actually matured earlier than normal and were dropping off due to ripeness?

These apples are bright red and LOOK ripe
Taste tests revealed otherwise.  They are hard and bitter and suitable only for the compost heap.  Close inspection revealed a few other details.

If you take a close look at the photo above you'll note some issues.  This apple is small and lumpy with odd blackish streaks on the skin.  Others were mishapen.

So why are almost full size unripened apples falling right before harvest time?  and why do they look so deformed?

I had a suspicion but I needed to check the internet first to be sure.  I have noticed other plants, most obviously the dahlias, were not producing flowers this year.  The only difference from other years is lack of water.

And sure enough the internet confirmed my instincts.

Apple trees often drop their fruit in June (see my post on June Drop), dropping any excess fruit the tree cannot support throughout the season.  Back in June this year things were proceeding along quickly but normally.  The trees had bloomed in May and by June fruit was forming.  The weather was warm but there was still some rain in the forecasts.

Blooms in May
That changed though.  By July the temperatures were consistently in the mid to high twenties (celsius) and no rain was coming at all.  That got worse in August as the temperatures climbed higher and humidity set in, still with no rain.

What has happened to our flowering plants and our apple trees is that flowers and fruit require water to form.  In the case of fruit it requires a lot of water.  When you bite into an apple what is it you first taste?  Juice.  Juice that is derived from water.  But plants also require water in order to survive.  Similar to June Drop, the trees have chosen to keep water sources to save themselves and are dropping fruit they cannot support.

Cleaning up the fallen fruit
But why is this happening so late in the year?  What the internet confirmed for me was that apple drop, just before harvest, is common on trees affected by water stress.  The trees don't know when it will rain again so they hold out, producing fruit and only dropping it when it becomes clear they can no longer support it.

As for those small, awkward looking, lumpy apples.  I discovered that orchardists check fruit circumference and condition throughout the season as a measurement of water stress.  Had I bothered to look earlier I would have noticed this as a clear indicator of water stress.  Something for me to note in future years.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Triumphs and Tragedies

It seems fitting that my first post about my garden on returning home should be a Triumphs and Tragedies.  As I looked out the window that first morning back I quickly noticed so many good and bad things at once.

The first thing I noticed was a tragedy.  I was having a hard time seeing past the weeds into my flower bed.

That's 65% weeds to 35% flowers
I could see flashes of pink and bright yellow but what was all that greenery?  The answer was thistles, dandelions, plantain and purslane.  Not to mention the compost I had spread before leaving town had sprouted!  Tomatoes, squash and lettuce were all working on a takeover.

The good news was after a couple days of clearing I saw many wonderful surprises hiding in this bed.

The pink that caught my eye were two clumps of Echinacea 'Magnus' and 'Ruby Star'.  In their second year they are filling out and gaining ground.  The bright yellow was Rudbeckia hirta, seed gifted to me from Sharon at The Willow Garden.  I started that seed in the house in the spring and thought they would be a smaller flower.  I was astounded by the huge, colourful blooms.  Some were clear yellow, others had a rosy ring and one plant is even a gorgeous burnt orange.

I was in plant love.  But it got better.  The flower garden has not failed me this year, putting out all sorts of treats to feast my eyes on.  Many plants were putting on a second show of flowers so there was anemone, hardy geraniums and astrantia to see.  As well, agastache and red valerian, which are new this year, were blooming.  My favourite find though was this gorgeous little number.

Miss Jekyll your blooms knocked my socks off.  I've seen Nigella before in other gardens but have never grown it for myself.  I thought it would be a good filler while the perennials took their time growing but I planted the seed late and nothing seemed to happen.  I thought my dreams of blue were over for the year so when I found these hiding next to the rudbeckia I was beyond excited.  They open a soft white with a tiny smidge of blue on the petals and deepen to full blue and then almost a purple before fading.  I'll be collecting the seed in the coming month so hopefully I can spread it around a bit more next spring.

Another tragedy awaited me though.  This fella looks pretty cute hiding behind the flowers

but as some of you may recall, he wasn't feeling too good when I left.  The antibiotics were obviously helping as he wasn't limping anymore but a good deal more of his fur was gone.  In fact, his whole back end is looking mighty bare (no wonder he was hiding behind the geraniums).  So another trip to the vet was required, howling in his cage all the way into town, and no answers were revealed.  The vet suspects he is over grooming due to stress.  We are hoping the stress was due to being sick and that hopefully his hair will now start to grow back in as the infection appears to be gone.

A trip to the vegetable garden brought numerous triumphs and tragedies.  I was pleased to see so many vegetables ready for the picking.  We've been eating a lot of fresh food recently.

However, how could the two of us possibly eat 7 cucumbers and 4 zucchini?  Not to mention the beans and tomatoes.  Thankfully I have some compliant coworkers who helped me out.

Another problem was the water.  Or rather lack of it.  It's been a dry dry dry summer.  Tomatoes were cracked, cilantro and dill dried out, flowers dead.

Cilantro dried out and gone to seed
I've been trying to get away without watering very much this year and it showed.  My dahlia flowers in the crescent garden should have been putting on a show around this time but hardly a bloom was to be seen.  The plants I think sacrificed blooms to save themselves.

But for every plant that showed signs of stress there were those that didn't seem to care.

From the kitchen I could see a burst of yellow down by the garage.  Closer inspection revealed the Golden Glow was blooming out of control.  It seems to have topped out around 8 feet but keeping it upright is a challenge.  The stakes I had bought to keep it upright toppled under the weight of the flowers.  Next year we need a fence to rein it in.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Visiting Van Dusen Gardens

On the last day of my vacation I had the good fortune to have the evening to myself in the city of Vancouver, British Columbia.  I was very close to just holing up in my hotel for the night but I reconsidered.  How often do I find myself in Vancouver with some extra time on my hands?

I still had time to make a last visit somewhere but what did I want to see?  The answer was quite easy.  Years ago when I lived on the west coast I was a volunteer at Van Dusen Botanical Gardens.  Since I have moved, Van Dusen has had some major structural changes.  The visitor building and restaurant have been renovated and a second larger building installed.  This was my chance to see those changes in person and revisits a garden that I loved for many years.

Looking across the lily pads to the floating bridge
I wasn't sorry I made the decision to visit.  The old visitors centre used to house a nursery, gift shop, washrooms, cashiers desk and restaurant.  It was slightly crowded.  Today that same building has been completely given over to Shaughnessy Restaurant.

This reflecting pool used to the at the main entrance to the garden.
Now this is a quiet spot where diners can look out and enjoy the view.
Diners can look out to the reflecting pool and enjoy an uncluttered view and quieter atmosphere now.  Those headed into the garden or looking for a gift can head to the new visitors centre.

The new building is, architecturally, a sight to see.
An amazing building that houses a new cafe (which I tried and can recommend.  Toasted cheese and turkey sandwich was wonderful), washrooms, gift shop, nursery and lecture rooms.  And the entrance into the garden is just as captivating as there is a view of the lake and fountain.

While wandering through the garden that evening I was pleased to see families out and about enjoying picnics on the lawn.  The new cafe sells a pass to families that includes garden entry and a loaded picnic basket.  This is such a great idea and one of the things I have always liked about Van Dusen.  This isn't an uptight garden where you aren't allowed to walk on the grass.  It is quite the opposite, people are encouraged to walk on the grass and off the paths.  It makes it feel like it is your own garden and is very welcoming.

Membership is also encouraged and of
good value if you live in the area,
One of the reasons for this more relaxed attitude is that the Van Dusen site was originally, from 1911 to 1960, the home of the Shaughnessy Heights Golf Links.  The grass throughout the gardens was originally installed to be walked upon.  In 1960 the golf lease expired and was not renewed.  It took several years of debating within the community but in 1966 the City of Vancouver agreed to the property becoming a botanical garden.  From 1971 to 1975 the Vancouver Park Board worked on transforming the golf course into the setting for a garden.  A groundwork of lakes, streams and massive rock gardens were created for curator Roy Forster to step in.  From 1972 to 1996 Roy Forster designed and oversaw the planting with Van Dusen officially opening for business in 1975.

Sometimes just the perfect selection of rocks is all you need.
Another aspect of Van Dusen that makes me smile is the weeds.  Yes, you heard me right, weeds.  Van Dusen is 55 acres big.  Big enough that I could not see it all in my brief tour.  Big enough to get lost in.  And big enough that it's small staff of approximately a half dozen gardeners cannot possibly remove every weed or deadhead every flower.  It did my heart good to see some bindweed creeping over a shrub or two.  It gave me hope that despite my inability to get my own garden into shape there's other professional gardeners who suffer the same issues.

This simple arrangement caught my eye
There were other things that caught my eye this trip as well.  I started out thinking I might look at various flower combinations but right away I was struck with how few flowering plants there were.  You can specifically go looking for flower gardens, there is a rose garden and perennial bed among other things but when wandering generally I found that plant material and hardscaping were greater contributors to the overall look of this garden.  Large trees, water features, rocks, various greenery and leaf shapes all jumped out at me.  One interesting spot which really focusses on this type of gardening is the black and gold beds. 

 There are almost no flowers in this bed and yet the eye catching colours of foliage draw your eye.  My excursion was a gentle reminder that it doesn't take bright blooms to create a beautiful garden.  All that greenery is laid out in a very specific way though that makes it attractive. 

While the flowers are nice it's the bright gold of the sedum
and blue of the grass that catches your eye.
Over and over again I noticed trees, paths and beds placed in such a way that they directed your eyes to take in a specific sight.

Although things are done on a grand scale here (I'll never have room enough for a lake or a labyrinth!) I still came away with lots of thoughts on my own garden.  How various parts of the garden are divided up into smaller chunks, placement of focal points and use of paths.  Not to mention this was a lovely trip down memory lane, thanks for joining me.