Provocative public art: Is that a reptile in your sewer or an artichoke on your fire hydrant?

The recent news that an Egyptian cobra is on the loose somewhere in the Bronx made me think of this:

From the "Life underground" series of sculptures, installed in the New York City subway. Image from:

These provocative and fun sculptures are the work of Tom Otterness, who is clearly a product of the same wonderfully warped imaginary world as Far Side cartoon creator,  Gary Larson.

 When you travel in New York City, you’ll find Otterness’ sculptures everywhere.

This is one of his art pieces in Rockefeller Park in Battery Park City overlooking the Hudson River.  It shows a cat stalking a bird who is eyeing a worm — that appears to be shielding a very small person.

This piece reminds me of Gulliver’s Travels…

Don’t ask me!

What I think makes these sculptures so compelling is their ability to personalize such a vast and impersonal landscape.  New York City is the biggest city in North America but through these whimsical and strange creatures, visitors and New Yorkers alike are instantly perplexed, amused and ultimately thrown off guard.

And if you think that New York is unique, look at what’s just happened along Wellington Street in Ottawa’s Westboro neighbourhood …

Photo: Eric Darwin

 These marble fire hydrants are the work of Ryan Lotecki and Marcus Kucey-Jones, who laboured for two years in their warehouse studio outside Almonte creating these weird sculptures.  Read more about this provocative public art in our own backyard here.

Is landscaping men’s work?

The ‘home arts’ like cooking and gardening, for example, have historically been the domain of women.

But when those family duties moved away from the home, suddenly men became the experts.

And when the work includes heavy machinery, large budgets and corporate expectations, men are usually seen as the ‘go-to’ professionals.

When I was working on a front garden installation three or four years ago, I had asked a couple of my gardening friends and associates to come along and help out.  There we were, three women, sweaty and heaving soil, plants and mulch around on a sunny summer day.

No word of a lie, people passing by (walking AND driving) stopped and marvelled.  Women?  No guys?  Landscaping?  Never seen it before.  But when I saw this post examining gender in the world of landscaping, I thought it was worth further examination; it is in the provocative blog called Thinkin Gardens at

In the end though, I think it comes down to money, financial risk and the masculine culture of the building trade. At the bigger end of the garden design industry and in show gardening the sums can be huge and the price of failure great.  Big landscaping projects are usually big building projects and, as I explored earlier, relatively few women have the experience of planning and managing building projects, of knowing the hints and wrinkles involved through having done the job themselves.

Instinctively therefore, clients and show garden sponsors feel more confident putting big budgets in the hands of men – even ones who have never wielded a pointing trowel.  And women, ever our own worst enemies in the equality arena, are hesitant about asking for the big bucks even when we do know what we are doing, because of our infuriating and persistent collective sense of lower worth.

Is this true?  Women’s “infuriating and persistent collective sense of lower worth”?  We do it to ourselves?  No doubt this was the case maybe thirty years ago, but today?  Are women still fighting the fight?

When I trained as a horticultural technician about twenty years ago,  there were about as many women learning the trade as men.  When it came to identifying plants and working with our hands, women were all over it.  But when it came to using tools and operating the machinery, men were all over it.

Several years ago when I was working on a garden and needed to take down a small tree with a large trunk in the midst of a mixed bed, I asked the fellow who had been pruning the mature trees on the property if he could do it before he left.  He swung by and asked if he could use my saw.  I said, “Sure” and handed him my folding pruning saw.  He looked at it like it was a butter knife and said, “I thought you said you had a saw?”

Of course, he meant “chain saw”…

 Is this the difference then?  Men love machines, women, not so much.  I don’t think so.  I would *love* to operate a Bobcat or a backhoe and I think  I’d be pretty good at it.  But I fear it would take me away from the thing I love more — that is, being in direct contact with plants.  Plus to be able to work with those machines I’d have to have a much bigger company where earth-moving on a large scale would be the norm and it would make financial sense to put out that kind of money for equipment.

Photo courtesy: GEHL COMPANY

In 2009 Rod McDonald, who owned and operated a sucessful landscape business in Regina for 28 years, wrote this article for Landscape Ontario’s Landscape Trades magazine:

I found that women were more often detail oriented, ensuring that the flower beds were raked and that the walks were swept. Heather used to ride the guys about cleaning the site after we planted, and she did not hesitate to hand the broom to the least-busy person. Keep in mind, this was at a time when a landscaper in our area openly bragged that he did not own a broom. He would tell his customers, if they wanted a clean walk, it was their responsibility to clean up after he installed their sod. I know this is hard to imagine today. Many landscapers failed to realize they were in the beauty business, that they had an obligation to clean up after themselves.

And in terms of clients’ perceptions of the first woman on his crew (Heather) he says:

I received phone calls from customers, both men and women, asking me if I knew that Heather is a girl? I would say yes, and leave it at that, waiting for them to respond. No one ever did. The most I got was an “Oh,” and then they would change the subject. It took people a while to adapt but by the third year, no one was surprised. They would phone and say, “I want to book Heather for some spring pruning,” or, “Ask Heather what I should be planting in the flower bed by the pool.”

And he makes another distinction between the sexes:

When I speak at a conference, many of the faces are now female, something that would have been unusual 30 years ago. Women ask better questions than men do at conferences and seminars. Men want others to assume they know everything. They allow macho pride to prevent them from asking questions. If women want to know an answer, they will ask.

So tidy, detail-oriented, willing to learn, inquisitive — all great characteristics but it all still seems a bit lop-sided to me –because these qualities are often seen as descriptive of the so-called  ‘gentler sex’.  Is it perhaps because this distinction is seen being seen through the eyes of a man where the old gender stereotypes continue to lie just under the surface?

What about a woman’s point of view from within the landscaping industry?  The issue was taken up in a recent article by Kelly Moore called ‘A Woman’s Touch’:

…some female landscapers do report that gender issues remain. Seamans (Lauren Seamans, a project foreman for Ames, Iowa-based Country Landscapes (, typically runs up against prejudice when working with new people. “I don’t get too hung up worrying about new personnel’s opinions of whether I’m qualified for the job or how subcontracted guys at commercial job sites view me. They’ll find out soon enough, and there are far more important things for me to be concerned with.”

D’Antonio (Valerie D’Antonio designs gardens and landscapes, supervises installations for a local landscape construction firm and coaches new gardeners as owner of D’Antonio Landscape Designs ) says men often have a hard time executing her recommendations. “The challenge is getting the males to accept my ideas and instruction. Many times they just say ‘OK’ and do whatever they choose.”

Women landscapers report that perceived physical limitations are far less challenging than one might think. In fact, Seamans believes it can be an advantage. “I’m used to being viewed with skepticism initially due to my 5-foot, 100-pound stature,” she says. “Guys can be uncomfortable with a girl out-lifting or out-wheelbarrowing them. So, in that regard, my hard work is a great motivational tool for them.

And in terms of landscape architecture (admittedly, a more off-site, less physical, career), women have been making steady inroads in the last twenty years.  Now, they represent the majority of graduates in that program (as evidenced below).

According to census data, women held approximately 48% of the jobs in this occupation in 2006, a percentage that has tripled since 1991 (15%). This percentage should still increase over the next few years, because on average 60% of the university landscape architecture graduates are women. 

I have found that the surprise of seeing a woman landscaper/landscape crew is usually confined to the general public rather than others in the landscape trade.  In my years designing gardens, buying plants, ordering product, sub-contracting or coordinating with other landscape professionals, I have never felt like a second class citizen.  But I think no one in the business today can afford to discriminate.  Besides, women have long since proven their worth in this and many other male-dominated trades.

I think the only stumbling block exists during the first stages of beginning a career in horticulture, landscaping or garden design; it is just as easy to be a man uncertain of his skills as it is to be a woman uncertain of hers.  But it occurs to me that if you’re confident enough to start your own business, built on the desire to make a difference in peoples’ gardens and outdoor environments, and have acquired the tools you’ll need to excel, then your biggest battles are behind you.

So if we’re still fighting the fight, it’s essentially in our own heads.

What do you do when it’s snowy & grey outside?

Okay, so yesterday it snowed (a lot) and today it’s still grey :c(

Before when it was sunny and you could see larger and larger patches of grass, I thought we had turned the corner to spring, but now, WITH THIS SNOW, I need to see some sun and feel some heat again. 

Here are some wonderful moments from our trips down south over the last several years as well as some secret places that I thought I’d share (shh!  don’t tell anybody else…) 

So here you go — and make notes to visit these heavenly spots yourself.

This image is wonky because we’re on a small motorized fishing boat that ferries people back and forth from the St-Martin mainland to this small island, called Isle Pinel.  This spot is a nature sanctuary:  electricity is supplied with generators and there are no roads, cars or motorbikes (the island is not big enough!). 



You can see the ‘ferry’ fishing boat docked at the island.  You can also see the gently sloping sand into the impossibly blue water. 

Go in the morning when you’ll be able to spend the entire day.  But avoid weekends; the crowds are just too large then!


This is the view from one of the palapa-covered picnic tables right on the beach at the Karibuni beach bar restaurant.   If you order fresh lobster (don’t get the idea it will be cheap, even though they’re kept fresh in a wire crate off the side of the dock), you’ll be offered a choice of large or larger :c)  But don’t ask for half; you’ll have to share!  And if you’re squeamish, ask them NOT to bring it LIVE to your table for you to confirm its a-o-k.

Yes, I know it’s raining here but better that than snow! 

This is a restaurant up in the tree tops, also in St-Martin; the chef creating the wonderful meals is a woman from Toronto (anyone who knows me knows that food is an essential part of a holiday!).  This area is the lounge section where you can sit and look out at the surrounding views.  The spot is on one of the most elevated areas of the island called Pic Paradis (or Paradise Peak), so it’s quite tropical looking in contrast to the arid landscape you see everywhere else.  This worthwhile destination is called Loterie Farm; read about it and its history here.


St-Martin (or Sint-Maarten) is in the French West Indies, even though the island itself is divided into two definitive national halves:  the north is French, with spectacular restaurants, cafes, bakeries that always carry baguettes and exquisite pastries, older or smaller ’boutique’ hotels and a European attitude — and the south is Dutch, with casinos, golf courses, American-style restaurants and a number of large chain hotels.  It is also the side where more cruise ships dock and crowds gather.  I favour the French side.

The island is quite small and somewhat hilly, with much of that land relatively dry and heavily grazed mainly by goats.   As a result there is not a lot of lush and tropical vegetation to experience.

But if tropical rainforest is what you’re looking for, then Costa Rica or Jamaica might be your destination of choice, neither of which I’ve been to yet … or the Flower Forest in Barbados (which I featured earlier…) 

 But let’s get back to St-Martin.

Although many of the restaurants in the sleepy town of Grand Case have gourmet (aka expensive) French cuisine, others are right on the sand and offer less sophisticated fare.  I chose it because I could have a beautifully prepared salad and fish, while my travelling companion, Kent, could have a burger!

Anything barbequed is also an option at the so-called ‘lolos’ that cluster around the centre of town in Grand Case.  Oil drums have been cut in half and elevated on spindly legs to act as make-shift grills for a wide variety of fare:  spareribs, burgers, steak, lobster, fish of the day … Add some corn on the cob, fried plantain, rice and beans, and a slew of other side dishes and you’ve got dinner or a generous lunch for a very reasonable price. 

What could be better than this?  Of course, this is how these hotels snag you.  You book a room that is affordable, with a questionable view, and when you arrive, they tell you that you’ve been upgraded to an ocean-view one bedroom suite!  With a balcony overlooking the ocean!  Yoo hoo!  And there’s a bottle of wine in your room for free…

Excuse me while I go to my happy place again…….


Show-stopper annuals for Spring 2011

I can’t wait any longer…I’m itching to see all the new plants at the nurseries this spring.   Here is my selection of what you might find within the next 60 days (but you’ll have to fight me for them!)
If you like Fuschias, then you’ll love Begonia boliviensis!
Begonia boliviensis 'Bellfire';

This plant is best grown in a hanging or raised up planter protected from the afternoon sun, either in a shady or partially sunny location.  Because its’ branches are pendulous, with stems that are fleshy like the tuberous begonia, and whacks and whacks of non-stop flowers, you’ll have to make sure it isn’t in the line of fire for your Saturday newspaper delivery — its’ branches are easily snapped.

Begonia boliviensis ‘Bonfire’;

This variety has more coral coloured blooms but, as you can see, is just as floriferous as ‘Bellfire’. 

Begonia boliviensis ‘Bon Bon Sherbet’;

I want them all!

Littletunia (TM) Dark Eyed Lady; Danziger

This small petunia (hence, Littletunia) is described as being white with a black centre.  Striking, no?

Petunia ‘Black Velvet’;

And then there’s what might be the showstopper of the season — the first black petunia.  A novelty to be sure, but also a plant that will need to be used carefully so that its receding flowers don’t disappear.

Petunia ‘Phantom’;

There’s no question that this variety called ‘Phantom’ would be easier to see from afar.  But careful; it could easily cross the line and be too much for the eye to take — dare I say garish?! 

I’m going to wait until I see it in person to make my decision…

Petunia Suncatcher ‘Midnight Blue’, trailing variety;

But the jury’s not out on this one — LOVE IT!

Salvia patens ‘Oceana Blue’;

There is a reason why blue is a favourite; just look at the way this sage captures the light and the colour shifts from bud to bloom.

Supertunia ‘Pretty Much Picasso’;

Am I the only one who likes this one?  Really different, I know, but think about how you’d make such interesting combinations with other chartreuse and black foliage plants, with some dark purples thrown in for good measure…

Viola Delta (TM) ‘Light Blue w/ Blotch’;

What glorious colour to greet you in the spring with these pansies.  Look for ones like these at nurseries that do their own seeding.

Zinnia Zahara ‘Bonfire Mix’;
And then with the heat of the summer, these short and densely single-flowering zinnia are just what the garden needs!


This is the serene view of Matsushima Bay,
which is off the eastern coast of Japan just a few miles north of Sendai
(a city many of us had never heard of before March 11th). 
Matsushima Bay, Japan
If you were to visit, you might have stopped here to have tea:
Kanrantei tea house overlooking Matsushima Bay, Japan

 Then you might have taken this short walk along a towering cedar lined road towards Zuiganji Temple, whose origins date back to the 9th century …

The temple hall would have been closed for renovations, but you could have visited its Zen kitchen, where all the meals were prepared, and lingered to appreciate its beautiful architecture.

 You could have wandered off along another pathway to experience the caves in the hillside where the monks would go to pray…

If you were going to visit Japan and wanted to know where the most beautiful and interesting sites were, you may have visited the website here, which is where I found these tantalizing pictures.

Instead, too many images of destruction have been seared into our minds since the earthquake and tsunami struck.

Remember the beauty of Japan and its people and give whatever you can.

 For the Canadian Red Cross, click here.

For Care Canada, click here.

You can also donate to WorldVets here.  They are on the ground in Japan helping to save lost, abandoned and relinquished pets.