Goldenrod shouldn’t be roasted and eaten with Thanksgiving dinner

Poor parsnip.  All it wants to do is be eaten.  And it should be!  It is loaded with nutrients, vitamins and cancer-fighting anti-oxidants….but its toxic sap just keeps grabbing all the headlines.


But wait a minute?  What’s this?  The only other yellow plant more maligned than wild parsnip is the ubiquitous goldenrod, Solidago canadensis.  Believed to be the wild botanical culprit that causes our autumn sniffles and itchy eyes — but isn’t! that credit goes to ragweed — goldenrod is actually cultivated in Europe as an ornamental and used in decorative plantings alongside ornamentals (like grasses, sedum, Joe Pye weed as well as rudbeckias, asters and echinacea.)


Best to know the difference between the two — wild parsnip, as well as its relatives giant hogweed (uber toxic sap), dill, coriander, carrot, parsley, Queen Anne’s lace, and others — are members of the Apiaceae (formerly Umbelliferae) family.  They share the same flower-structure, which appears as a flat-topped umbel:


So be aware, but don’t be fearful.

After all, parsnips are yummy with your Thanksgiving dinner!  Goldenrod, not so much.

The last days of summer…

The dog days of summer…



It’s been hot.  Too hot for black dogs.


So hot that shade is barely shade.

July 2011 - 1 001

The snappers wind their way, prehistoric bodies smeared green with algae and lumbering from water to grass, grass to water.

August 2011 - last 001

There are surprises in the woods…..I recall someone who went mushroom hunting and ate those he found on a log, differentiated by those *next* to a log.  Was it these that were poison or the others?  Thinking you are right is not the same as being right.  He could have said this as he recovered from his hospital bed.

cef - 2011 004

…and more surprises in open spaces.  The straw-coloured grasses sway in the shifting heat that at one moment is thick with moisture and then the next, light with hints of autumn.

August 2011 - 3 003

The grasses and lily pads are choking the pond, making the ducks work extra hard to power through, bobbing for food and then relaxing on the logs that have been placed there for that very purpose.


  The milkweed is ready.  I cannot resist the urge to pull the silken stuffing from their pods and set each seed free by waving them over my head.  Like nature’s bubble machine.

A house in the country: stone, water and plants

I have written about my friend Jeff’s garden before, first here and then, here.  It has been a work in progress for several years now and just this summer, the work will finally be completed.

And the front of Jeff’s country ‘estate’ will have gone from this:


To this:

IMG_1880This garden has been a labour of love by three people: the homeowner, Jeff, of course who had high standards of excellence and a very clear vision of how he wanted his garden to look and feel; Jo Hodgson, who excels at making stone do exactly what she wants, in a way that is durable, beautiful and totally sympathetic to the landscape around it; and me, who just wanted to play with plants and be a part of this garden creation in paradise from Day 1.

IMG_1399The house and garden in question are on a hill overlooking a lake in the Quebec hills.

IMG_2181The slope from back to front is substantial, necessitating not only a tall wall but also a considerable staircase from the front road to the back door of the house.

IMG_1397This curved stone wall is one of the masterpieces of the project, with monumental stone steps alongside it.


IMG_1879The stairs are now how Jeff envisioned them: wide, generous and planted with mother of thyme and taller scented thymes, so that the progression downward is a sensory experience.

IMG_1881There are chairs placed here and there so that Jeff can come out with his morning coffee and experience the garden from different angles….

IMG_1893The gravel driveway is bound by large stones that hold a series of garden beds.  This raised one holds a tapestry of ground hugging sedums, Siberian cypress, creeping phlox and then diaphanous grasses — these are Molinia caerulea (Moor grass) that will throw up wands of waving seed heads in the late summer….

IMG_0173 This highest bed, closest to the road, includes a Bristlecone pine (Pinus aristata), which although slow-growing, will act as an evergreen anchor to this entry garden bed.

IMG_1886The lower bed closest to the entry patio sports classic perennials like catmint, Siberian iris and more…

IMG_1887…and the bed against the sunny side of the house sports beebalm, achillea and other hot plants, with morning glory climbing up the blue walls.

IMG_1882The bed next to the front door is Jeff’s Ode to Tom Stuart-Smith and his love of juxtaposition:  here we have used the species Hakonechloa macra alongside Thuja occidentalis ‘Golden Globe’ and a central pivot provided by an Acer ginnala (a multi-stemmed Amur maple) — as the Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’ expired the year before from the harsh winter conditions.

IMG_1883A beautifully large and lusciously chartreuse pot holds a spectacular petunia cultivar called ‘Phantom’, along with an Angel’s trumpet (Datura cv.)  Despite being nipped by the frost in late spring, the display is lush and striking.

IMG_1892The last frontier is the retaining wall at the rear of the house — certainly not a highly visible location but nevertheless, the same attention to detail and precision is going into the construction of this wall.

IMG_1891It is a spectacular project that is coming to a close.  I hope to return in the fall to take some more shots of this beautiful house with its developing garden in the fiery autumn colours.  Stay tuned…

A young family’s garden: space for plants, kids *and* quiet contemplation

An established garden can be both a curse and an opportunity.  A curse because chances are you will be dealing with plants that have been loved and let loose by the previous owners for decades.  And an opportunity because once the jumble is untangled and the potential is uncovered, the new garden can be a gem.  This was the case in a garden that was developed over a period of several years, transitioning from a forgotten, tired space to an active and changing one… I am happy to have helped this transition along…


In the case of this particular garden, four large trees have provided both shade and root competition.  They straddle the west side of the garden — an ancient apple, two green ash and one butternut — and it was a surprise to all that the ash were the first to fail.  As everyone in Ottawa now knows, the last two years has seen the emerald ash borer decimate the green ash population in our city.  It seems few trees have been spared and the two in this garden have also unfortunately joined the list.  Apple trees are prone to every single type of insect and pathogen, but this beloved tree is still kicking.  The butternut is also defying the odds, as many have been succumbing to butternut canker, a fungus that has been killing trees quickly since the 1960s.

When I first came to this garden, the planting under the trees along this fence line included a very mature hedge of French hybrid lilacs with an under-planting of Annabelle hydrangea.  The lilac bushes had long since stopped blooming as they were in day-long shade, but the hydrangea (for which the homeowner had expressed her disdain) were thriving.  You may not know this but Annabelle hydrangea *always thrive*.  I can’t recall how long it took us to dig out both the lilac and hydrangea or how deep our excavations went, but our efforts spanned more than one visit and the biggest challenge may have been distinguishing between the roots of the plants that we were removing versus those of the trees we believed were staying!


Lilac and hydrangea gone: check.  New fence: check.  Shade-loving perennials placed in east-facing bed: check.  Raised stone herb garden converted to small pond: check.

This garden is now a lush oasis with not only a million shades of green but spaces for the homeowner’s small kids to play: the raised pond provides endless fascination, the small lawn a place for them to play and the plants an opportunity to learn their names….as I’m told is actually happening, even with their 5 year old boy!

IMG_1780A blue garden shed is not only a place to store tools and the like, but also a focal point.  More than this, it provides the kids with an opportunity to play hide and seek….and the flagstone patio surrounded by a sunny garden to it’s left provides a spot for the adults to sit and contemplate life — notice the bright red bistro set.


The basic “working man’s” terracotta pots provide an opportunity to make a summer-long colourful display.  This way, the annuals are the show and not their containers.  Stuffed full of plants, the homeowners won’t have to wait to enjoy the splendour…

My heart-dogs: Riley and Skye-dog

In the world of canine cancer, I had not been lucky.

My first dog, Riley, a thick-coated and majestic border collie with a tail that swept up and over her back all day, every day, unless she had no prospects or saw a bath on the horizon, succumbed to a cancerous mass in her chest at the relatively young age of 10.

As my very first dog, all of those adjectives you hear over and over again applied to us too:  soul-mate, best friend, partner and life-saver.  After a childhood of gerbils, lizards and fur pelts to fill the void of a lovelorn existence, longing for a dog but allowed none, she picked me at the ripe age of 33.  Opening her cage at the pound, she laid her head against my shoulder as if to say, “I’m home.”

IMG_5049The symptoms presented as anemia, more properly something called “auto-immune hemolytic anemia”, and results in the body’s immune system attacking its own red blood cells because they sense an invader, in her case, cancer.  We were on a walk and suddenly she collapsed, struggling yet unable to right herself.  I rushed to her and held her down to quell her panic until she calmed and was able to stand.  Once home, she collapsed again and I knew something was horribly wrong.

Treatment consists of blood transfusions to bring the anemia under control and then addressing the underlying condition.  In Riley’s case, a massive tumour under her ribcage.  But surgery was never an option because even with the transfusions, her red blood cell counts never normalized.  We lost her within a month of her diagnosis.  I grieved for what seemed like a lifetime.

IMG_5051Fast forward to today.

The second furry love of my life has lived beyond what anyone has expected after her cancer diagnosis.

As I told her when she came home with me from the pound at the tender age of 7 weeks, she would have some pretty big shoes to fill.


Early on I told her she may never be the “best dog”, but in truth, she is tied for best dog.

On February 25th, 2011 at 8 1/2 years old, she was diagnosed with stage III multicentric lymphoma and underwent six months of chemotherapy.

She has remained in remission since her first week of treatment and next month she will turn 13 — an almost unprecedented 4+ year lymphoma survivor.  She is everything one would ever hope for in a dog — smart, dedicated, funny, loyal, loving, independent, thoughtful, sensitive, eager to please and patient.  She has taught me to be honest, true to my word, consistent and fearless.  And so many other things…


I’m not exaggerating when I say these two wonderful dogs have been the single biggest gift in my life.  Always there, always seeing me as someone they want to spend time with …. always happy to see me.

I am so grateful for them.  Whatever unfolds, Skye-dog can count on me to make sure she is treated with honour and respect …. to her last breath.


Brewer Park: its past meets up with its future

When I was very young, my Mother would take my sister and I to the beach.  Not a beach at a lake or ocean.  But the perfect man-made sandy beach surrounding a constructed swimming hole at Brewer Park in Old Ottawa South, just across from Carleton University.


This was in the 1960s and I was less than 10 years old.  I remember the convenience of a parking lot (I’m sure this was more important to my stressed-out mother than to me), as well as a large building that housed changing rooms, washrooms and, most importantly, a snack bar.  Pasty white children would scream and splash and swim in the mirky water, which slowly percolated until the levels of bacteria and urine hastened its closure some years later.

Over time, Brewer Pond began to look like this…

brewer pond 2012 Tom AlfoldiBrewer Pond 2012: photo by Tom Alfoldi

 ….with the once pristine sandy beach gradually being replaced with bull rushes, alder, Manitoba maple, willow, larch, milkweed, wild spirea and others.  Not to mention hosts of wildlife including rabbits, birds, foxes, turtles and very active beavers.

But there was a problem.  Every spring, snow and ice run-off from up river would rush downstream and flood this section of the park.  What resulted was not only damaged and uprooted trees but also a redistribution of river fish and other aquatic creatures into the pond.  Sadly, they became prisoners there after the flood subsided.  Because the water was stagnant, it became anaerobic (or lacking oxygen) so with time, the relocated fish and other organisms suffocated and eventually expired.

The edge of the Rideau River in this location had once been much more dynamic, but this was before I was born.  Channels defined islands which existed apart from the park’s fields and provided paths for the spring waters to follow, preventing serious flooding.


Fast forward to today: in the last 40 years the naturalized area around the swimming hole has once again been buzzing with life, both wild and otherwise.  A well traveled foot path circumnavigates the pond making it a popular place for play, peaceful contemplation and socializing amongst people and specifically, their dogs.

In the great tradition of the revitalization of natural spaces, largely paid for with development dollars (one wetland destroyed = another one re-created), overseen by those who know how to achieve it (i.e. the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority) and work carried out by contractors who specialize in large-scale earth moving, habitat protection and species relocation, the project was begun this past fall.

The idea was to re-connect the pond with it’s mother, the Rideau River.  Over the last decade, at least, ideas about how to do that were bantered about.  I remember being involved in early discussions that involved ECOS, the Environmental Committee of Old Ottawa South (which has now been integrated into OSCA’s general operating principles) and various partners and players (Mike Lascelles, Michael Loewen, Hedrik Wachelka and others).  For example, one or possibly two channels could be dug to allow unobstructed water flow through the landmass — a good idea, but this kind of land severing would require a way for people to access the resulting island.  I asked about using foot bridges like the elegant rusty steel one at the Dominion Arboretum.  “Too expensive,” was the answer, and there was an issue with it being washed away in the spring floods.

So over a period of several years, the ideas for how to achieve a link with the river resulted in the notion of a single culvert on the down-river side of the pond.  It would mean water would still rush over the area during the spring thaw but that afterwards, fish and aquatic creatures would no longer be trapped.  And more than this, river-bound fish would hopefully choose to re-enter the newly oxygenated pond and use it for spawning.  Enter Muskies Canada.

You might not know this but the Rideau River, especially around the Bronson Bridge is a hot-bed for fresh water giants like muskie and pike.


If you’re a duckling, you’re shuddering right about now…but if you’re a fisherman, you’re overjoyed.

So, in October 2014 work began.  First, as many creatures living in the pond as could be trapped or caught were collected and re-located (with the exception of the very active beaver family.)  Then a low level barrier consisting of landscape fabric and wooden posts was erected around the pond to theoretically keep them from returning.

IMG_1373Nobody told the beavers this.

Then the metal fencing went up and heavy machinery moved in.

IMG_1420Two or three giant excavators moved in and began scooping out the perimeter of the pond after the draining was complete.

IMG_1494Huge metal cylinders were brought in to act as culverts, linking the dredged pond to the river.  Once put in place, they will remain completely invisible to all but the creatures who swim through them.

IMG_1547Work continued as the snow began to fall and the temperatures began to drop…

IMG_1579….until finally the machines were gone and the only evidence of the new connection between the pond and river is this  opening in the ice.

I can’t wait to see what the spring brings…..more to come!


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