Well hello Baldy.

I am so disappointed that I missed the ‘money’ shot here.  But I thought this one warranted a post.

This is our tiny backyard with a tiny back porch.  Take a look closely … on the railing.  ‘What is that?’ you ask.

Well, our garden has been adopted by a family of bluejays and the two youngsters (with almost bald heads but fully feathered bodies!) decided to splay themselves on our porch railing to get some sun.  So just a split second before I took this photo, there were two — a mirror-image — and now, there’s just one.  Click on the picture to see this fellow’s close-up and you’ll see the fluffy body and bald head for yourself.

Did you know:

Blue jays often mate for life;

Blue jays only live on the eastern half of North America;

Although many think of the blue jay as an aggressive bully and even an opportunistic predator when it comes to smaller birds, a study was performed analyzing the stomach contents of jays.  The results are quoted in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website and indicated that “of 530 stomachs examined, traces of bird eggs and nestlings were found in only 6 stomachs.”

Many but not all blue jays migrate to southern climates during the winter months but surprisingly, this phenomenon has not been well studied;

Blue jays have been credited with spreading the oak tree because of their ability to choose and bury acorns that are not infested with weevils;

Male blue jays gather materials for nesting while the female builds the nest;

Only the female jay incubates the eggs and stays with the young once they hatch; it is the male who gathers food to feed his mate and their young.

Bald blue jays are usually an indicator of juveniles undergoing their first molt.  Read here http://www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw/AboutBirdsandFeeding/BaldBirds.htm for more information on bald birds.

Veggies & ragweed make for sneezing

Well, actually, only ragweed makes for sneezing but the fact that the newly tilled soil this spring — next to where we actually planted — has resulted in a bumper crop of ragweed makes visiting our allotment garden *achoo0* very sneezy.  But, if this is the reward —

— then *aahh….choo!*  it’s definitely worth it.   These patty-pan squashes (Cucurbita pepo) are called Patisson Panache (with an accent on the ‘e’), Verte et Blanc and came from Seed Savers Exchange.  They are a French heirloom that date back to the 1800s.  The monster tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) — a whopping 5″ wide — is named Rose and it is also from SSE.  An old-fashioned variety from the Amish in New Holland, Pennsylvania, it is considered one of the best tasting beefsteak tomatoes EVER.  I’ll let you know.  And the mini yellow pear-shaped tomato is called Yellow Pear (go figure) and came from Renee’s Garden.   It is also an old variety and has a mild, sweet taste.

But let’s back up for a minute. 

Boy, life sure is full of good intentions.  Case in point:  our veggie allotment garden where this spring I had big dreams.  I had contacted two very well-known and excellent seed sellers for packets of seeds to trial and was sent a generous variety by both Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa (I wonder if that photo op of Obama last week was indeed in front of their iconic red barn…oh yes, I see it was!) and Renee’s Garden in Felton, California.  Both of these seed purveyors specialize in heritage (and often rare), untreated, organically grown, and non-genetically modified seed.

This growing season has been a challenging one.  First, it was too wet.  Rains came and stayed for weeks on end in April and May, leaving the earth soggy and impossible to work without sinking into the slurpy muck.  Despite this, we managed to prepare a section of our garden before the mushroom compost was delivered and then got our seedlings into the ground. 

Then the drought.  June, July and now August has been hot and dry, making it great for long-season crops but the hardened soil makes weeding almost impossible.  Without supplemental watering, the ground is like cement and our attempts to weed our allotment garden was, for the most part, defeated.

On top of this, I am busy busy busy during the week, nevertheless weekends still saw regular visits to keep on top of things.  But over the last two or three weeks we seem to have been too busy even to make one visit to the garden.  As a result, this was what we saw today:

How did everything get so BIG?  The tomatoes, of which we had planted four varieties, were falling over resulting in some lying on the ground with very large bites having been taken out of them.  The broccoli (from Renee’s Garden, called All Season Blend, and is supposed to continue producing with side florets even after the central one is harvested) was bursting forth like this:

— and I might as well ‘fess up now that this was not my first broccoli harvest.  I had taken some on our last visit a few weeks earlier and made this:

Yes!  That is broccoli that we grew ourselves … and the peas too.  I can’t claim credit for the carrots and mushrooms, however.  Sorry for the poor quality – I think the heat emanating from the stove (yummm) made my camera all blurry.

Anyway, this is what else we found today —

Still too little to harvest but a joy to behold.  This is Cream of Saskatchewan watermelon (Citrullus lanatus) from Seed Savers Exchange that was “brought to Saskatchewan by Russian immigrants” and “does well in cool northern climates.”   It has beautiful white flesh and black seeds. 

This poor, imperfect pepper (Capsicum annuum) is nonetheless putting on some nice colour.  It is a Hungarian heirloom called Beaver Dam, and according to the packet it was “brought to Beaver Dam, Wisconsin in 1912 by the Joe Hussli family” and can be purchased through the Seed Savers Exchange.  It is described as being “mildly hot” when seeded — good thing since I’m a wimp when it comes to hot food.  I’ll let it stay on the vine a little longer…

Stay tuned for more in my veggie allotment garden saga…..

Tropical dreams in an Ottawa summer

Before the sweltering heat of the summer of 2011 is over, I wanted to give a look at a place we stayed in Mexico a couple of years back.

We have a soft spot for the island of Isla Mujeres, which is off the coast of Cancun, and relatively unknown to all the chain hotel afficionados and party lovers that frequent that noisy and busy spot.  Isla Mujeres, when we first visited it over 15 years ago, was almost deserted, except for locals.  Transportation was by foot, bicycle or scooter/moped; there were virtually no cars or taxis on the island back then.  The hotels were small and low to the horizon, and the restaurants on the beach were mainly snackbars, with fresh fish, guacamole and Corona — oh, and stirred, not whizzed, margueritas.  Nothing fancy here.

The beaches were roamed by dogs; no palapas, beach umbrellas or rows of lounge chairs.  No one tried to sell you anything and you felt utterly safe and in paradise.  Below is North Beach, and the buildings on the right (click on the phto to see them) are the condos that were built as part of the hotel complex that was known as the El Presidente.  

The El Presidente became a white elephant and is surviving by the skin of its teeth because, up until now (and perhaps forever), a hotel of that size was simply not sustainable on such a small island.  Here it is below — the pyramid shaped building at the right (again, click on the photo to see it).  It is now called the Avalon Reef Club and has had its share of ups and downs.

Anyway, enough of that.  The hotel we loved was called Elements of the Island and I wrote about it a little while back; you can read that article here.

With all the things that comprise our summers here in Ottawa — heat, sun, windows open to the breeze, white sheets and summery outfits — perhaps strangely, this image is what I keep in my mind’s eye from our stay at Elements and what I see when I think  ‘summer’.

This small, independently run hotel has three self-contained apartment units, furnished simply but with kitchenettes and a small balcony or patio. Just a few steps away on the second floor there is a balcony across the courtyard:  here, you’ll find peace and quiet where you can read a book, have an afternoon siesta or relax in the hot tub.

Lisa and Cesar, the original owners and creators of this wonderful place have moved on to other adventures but the place continues under the careful direction of two new entrepreneurs, Madgid and Jean, and the reviews continue to be very good!

The rooms are still priced at under $100 a night, the healthy, home-made breakfasts and brunches continue to be amazing, and yoga is still offered on the roof-top palapa.  A great place to dream about on our hot summer evenings, where tropical beaches will have to live on in our minds — until we visit them again in the winter!

So many apps, so little time

Got this great new app for my iphone called Hipstamatic.  This is what it does:

On our walk by the water the other day we saw this:

But Skye’s mind was not on waterlilies.  It was, as usual, on this:

My ‘Give’ is less emphatic and more of a question: ‘Give?’ 

Okay.  But only if you throw it.

Will do, but just let me get a pic of your smiling mug first.

I love the low-tech, vintage quality of this app.  Lots of potential that I can’t wait to try out.


A garden to enjoy — in every season

This was a backyard that I first met last autumn.   The homeowners, both busy professionals, were eager to make it into an all-season refuge but didn’t want to be a slave to the plantings.  The garden is small and we agreed that only a few plants were worth keeping:  a mock orange in the corner, one of several sentimental shrub roses and a cedar hedge.

The hedge had been well maintained but the grass was pretty well a losing proposition.

The large maple in the neighbour’s property ensured that this corner of the yard was going to be difficult, if not impossible to plant due to root competition.

The plants not worth keeping were primarily ostrich ferns (they are nubs here in the late fall) that thrived in the all-day shade alongside both sides of the house.

The homeowners wanted a patio, preferably in flagstone (although we did investigate whether interlock surfacing would be a) cheaper and b) an acceptable aesthetically-pleasing alternative).  There was an existing flagstone path into the garden but it petered out at the base of the stairs to the small, raised porch.

In the end it was decided that natural stone couldn’t be beat.  So a flagstone patio, a planting that would be easy to maintain and provide visual interest in every season and easy access into the garden as well as to and from the shed were what was needed to create their ideal garden. 

We were really lucky to get Jo Hodgson to construct the flagstone patio and paths.  Here she comes!

Jo Hodgson is the dynamo behind the flagstone work here in this garden.   Her primary love is dry stone walling but she can do anything with natural stone.

She uses traditional techniques, chiselling and manipulating stone rather than cutting with a blade.  In advance of this, she lays all the stones out and masterfully picks and chooses which stone goes into which space. 

The work is quite labour intensive but with it comes a love of the job and an intrinsic understanding of and respect for the natural material:  in this case, Wiarton limestone.

So, after Jo and her helper had done their work, this —

… began to look like this:

… and finally, after I and my “mulch specialist” had done our work, it looked like this:

Now, isn’t that better?  This is my favourite view — it really beckons the visitor into the garden.  This shady planting incorporates Geranium macrorrhizum and a pair of specimen hosta.

Plants like Cotoneaster, ‘Gro-Low’  fragrant sumac, ‘Brilliantissima’ chokeberry will all ensure striking fall colour and various evergreens (glaucous blue and green) will provide all season interest.  ‘Hallward’s Silver’ spirea and sweet woodruff will be awash in delicate white blooms in the spring and early summer.  And fragrant hostas as well as a dark-leafed snakeroot will provide perfume in the late summer. 

Even the dark corner with the shed is now a workable and attractive space! 

All that’s left to plant is a Boston ivy and climbing hydrangea to help integrate the fence into the garden.

And, I have to say, such a beautifully crafted patio deserves a lovely teak patio set.

Thank you Susan and Alan for being such wonderful clients. 

Love this Sea Kale! (oops)

In the midst of this heat wave that we’re having in eastern Ontario, I am drawn to plants that are in amazing condition, despite the drought.

Silver-leafed perennials are usually reliably drought tolerant.  I’m sure there’s a scientifically botanical reason for this, but I can’t tell you what it is.  Never mind; if you’ve got sun and withering heat, take note of this planting:

The ruffled blue leaves of Sea Kale (Crambe maritima) take centre stage here — don’t they resemble undersea coral? —  and some diminutive groundcovers (looks to me like a combination of thyme, bugleweed and in fact, strawberry) are filling the spaces between the stones.  In the rear is a grass that is likely a variegated Molinia, then a daylily and a single specimen of Viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare) — I suspect the last is a volunteer, but how happy they all look in the heat.