All posts by ailsaf

Jeff’s countryside idyll

It is hard to believe that there is life outside on a day when your cheeks will freeze in five minutes!  The birds are huddled in evergreens, the squirrels curled up in their leafy beds and the mice and voles are buried deep under their blankets of snow and soil.  Only the pushy crows and hungry hawks can be seen cutting through the skies….

I lie on the couch in front of a gentle fire with my dog Scout curled on my legs.  I’m half watching an impossibly young, blonde couple looking for a house in Goa, India, and in other moments, the unending and maddening political analysis on CNN.

What would be better than going back in time, back to the summer and to one of my favourite places, my friend Jeff’s house in the Quebec countryside.  Come with me as I show you his place, with gardens that are now relatively mature.  Jeff invites me annually so I can swish around the gardens, point here and there, saying this needs to go here and something else needs to go here instead.  He is a very patient man.

If you’re interested in earlier visits to this garden, go here, here and here.

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The house’s blue mirrors the colour of the lake below.  Jeff is working on the forest that descends to the water, culling the diseased and dead ones, thinning some to maximize the view but still give privacy and encouraging the “keepers”.

The monumental thyme steps have grown in and beckon the visitor to follow….a path that leads to a grassy landing at the backside of the house, held up by another beautifully constructed stone wall that holds the hillside.

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The multi-stemmed Amur maple (Acer ginnala), which turns a rich shade of red in the fall and is bullet-proof in terms of disease and insect damage, is surrounded by the species form of Japanese forest grass, Hakonechloa macra.  A few shaped golden cedars join the party but will likely be moved elsewhere as this form of forest grass grows quite tall and dwarfs them.

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The dry-laid flagstone patio at the front of the house is a step down from the gravel road but is the perfect place to sit for tea or simply to enjoy the garden.  Pots with bright annuals are perched about, lending the space intense colour.  Indeed, primary colours abound in this new design — Jeff’s younger love of pastel colours has matured into a passion for depth and richness.

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This raised bed, the first to be seen from the road, combines creeping sedums, Siberian cypress, Geranium ‘Rozanne’ and purple moor grass (Molinia caerulea), among others.  The idea is for the plants here to be low or diaphanous, so they do not present a visual barrier to the other plantings.

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The bristlecone pine (at right; Pinus aristata) provides structure and interest.  A slow growing, beautiful, unique and ancient evergreen, it will over time reach great heights — but long after Jeff has kicked the bucket (sorry Jeff!)

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The solidity and gorgeous texture of these stones are in glorious contrast to the plants above and adjacent.  The mounded shrubs that bracket this step are lace shrub or cut-leaf Stephanandra (Stephanandra incisa ‘Crispa’), which will over time tumble down over the edges.  They produce delicate white flowers in the early summer which attract the hum of bees and wasps; in autumn, the foliage turns a brilliant gold.  Jeff’s bold colour choices in this circular bed include lilies, beebalm, yarrow, geranium, garden phlox (yet to bloom), persicaria (the garden-worthy type!) and Calamagrostis.  The staked tree at the corner of the house is a young fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus), which will produce white filigree blossoms before it matures in late spring, early summer.  Hardy to Zone 3, it will provide an interesting feature and a tree for visitors to talk about long after they leave.

Thank you Jeff for letting me be a part of your beautiful countryside idyll!  I can’t wait for next year……….

 

Growing your own, organically!

Earlier this season the folks over at Canadian Organic Growers approached me and asked if I would write a review of their latest labour of love, a COG practical series handbook called, The Organic Backyard: A guide to applying organic farming practices to your home or community garden.

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This publication, only 61 pages long, packs in all that you need to know to begin growing your edible plants organically on your own property, as part of a group in a community garden, on reclaimed parks or urban spaces across the country.

The hope is that this book will help “to engage more of the community in building the local organic food system.”  The editor, Sarah Chisholm Ryder, envisions this little book “spreading across our communities, turning every available space into one that produces good food that nourishes our soils, us and our environment.”

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The voluptuous Civic Garden at Lansdowne Park, Ottawa

Before you can truly garden organically, you must understand that the quality of your soil is your biggest ally.  Simply gardening without synthetic herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers is not the full picture.  Growing organically, especially food crops, means:

  • Understanding soil life
  • Building soil health and productivity of the land for generations to come
  • Protecting the environment by decreasing water pollution and increasing biodiversity and pollinator habitat
  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions by not using fossil-fuel based fertilizers
  • Protecting seed identity by not using genetically modified (GM) seed
  • Knowing the source of your garden inputs and how they affect the environment, your land and your neighbours land
  • Recycling nutrients within your garden system through composting, crop rotation and cover crops

If you’re new to vegetable gardening, this wide-ranging ideology might be overwhelming to you at first, but don’t worry.  This guide introduces you gently by providing you with easy steps to follow along your food growing journey:

  • where to site your food garden;
  • how to prepare your site, whether it is in an existing lawn, a compacted backyard (i.e. raised planters) or intended as a production market garden;
  • the tools you’ll need;
  • the seeds you should source, as well as a brief guide to starting seeds indoors;
  • the importance of keeping a journal;
  • the qualities of good soil and how to make it happen (i.e. making compost, the value of manure, compost tea and the use of cover crops);
  • helping your garden grow (managing weeds, intercropping or co-cropping, mulching, the pros and cons of tilling, dealing with pests and diseases, encouraging pollinators and beneficial insects and organisms);
  • the notion of crop rotation and how it helps to balance soil fertility;
  • the benefits of companion planting (with plant notes);
  • the value of succession planting (making the most of your space);
  • final thoughts on keeping things going when the weather turns cold.

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There is also a small section at the end that talks about community gardening, including tips to help you start one of your own, a checklist of what to consider and guidelines that will ensure everyone contributes equally and the garden’s management is not left to Mother Nature or chance.

Highly recommended as a tool for the beginner vegetable gardener, or someone wanting to have basic information available at their fingertips as they grow food organically.  If you’re a beginner, it is important to reach out to an organization like the Canadian Organic Growers and this book is one of many resources available to you.  Gardening sympathetically alongside the natural world and being mindful of our earth’s future is our duty in today’s fast-paced and throw-a-way world.  The sweetness of freshly pulled carrots or the burst of flavour in home-grown tomatoes is the end result of our commitment to following certain organic principles.  But it’s not just the harvest that can give us joy, it is the entire journey.

You can purchase your copy for $15.00 CAN here.

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Only time heals

When we lose someone, we lose our compass, our rudder.  Up is now down, and left is right.  Nothing is the same.

When we lose someone, we are in a vacuum and for the moment, time has no meaning.  We think this day will never come.

If you’ve been lucky enough to have a dog who meant the world to you, you’ll understand what I’m talking about.   If you haven’t, I’m sorry for you.

If you’ve had a dog who was sick, infirm or old, you’ll know that these are the times that your bond grows deep, develops extra lignin, strengthens your connection and builds a wall around you that is never breached.  This is love.

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I thought I’d be back blogging soon….but words seem to fail me.

There is plenty to talk about and I am keen to talk about it….but in this moment, I will simply reflect that it has been nearly a year since I said goodbye to Skye-dog and my life is slowly regaining its colour.

Thanks for waiting.

A winter reverie…

….with colourful summer planters!  But first, here I am with my big sister in the Gatineau hills.  She’s holding the leaf; I’m eating an apple.  My two loves: the outdoors and food.

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Successful summer planters are full and lush.  They are also fearless and creative….

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This is the planter that undergoes seasonal changes at True Loaf bakery on Gladstone in Ottawa’s centretown.  If you crave chewy, flavourful, delicious and inventive bread, both savoury and sweet, this is your destination!

This planter combines white cosmos, buttery yellow petunia, golden Carex, white Gaura, ‘Diamond Frost’ euphorbia, a hit of fire-y zinnia, ‘Tiger Eye’ sumac and the blades of Acidanthera.  It probably didn’t need the orange-red zinnia, or else would have benefited from more plants of that colour.  Oh well – live and learn.

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As you can clearly see, I can’t get enough of yellow, chartreuse, green and white, so this is my garden in the early summer.  Incorporating a large pot into a garden planting can be very rewarding and can afford a big statement, that can be changed according to the season.

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This is a family garden, where kidlets enjoy the raised pond and lawn play area while the adults appreciate the colourful planters.   Grouping smaller planters like this into a vignette makes a bigger statement than just one.  As you can see, the blue-silvery planter is raised on a simple metal stand, giving it extra height and presence.

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Planters can be anything — this one uses an antique bucket to great effect and is very much a part of the garden display in a plant nursery in Hudson, NY.

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The same nursery, this time with a large copper tub acting as planter, along with a vintage red truck.  Such whimsy!  When you’re building your arrangements, think about coloured foliage as much as you think about flower colour….

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This mirrored planting shows the value of both scale and foliage.  Palms provide bulk and height, massive ‘Gryphon’ begonias (large, palm shaped leaves) provide texture and a metallic quality, ‘Bonfire’ begonias shout red and English ivy trail.  This is the perfect combination for a sheltered, shady porch.

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Another entrance planter enthralls in the sunshine with luscious chartreuse, yellow and black….

I can’t wait to create some new combinations in 2017…..

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Colourful and natural planters for the holidays

Christmas is coming and so is our opportunity to do something festive and special.  A tree, yes, but also a planter outdoors that allows us to be as flamboyant or as natural as we like.

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The folks at Mill Street Florist in Manotick always mix the unexpected: in this outdoor display, cut red roses are paired with winterberry (Ilex verticillata) to produce an undeniable punch of red.  Of course, red roses will not survive sub-zero temperatures for long, so this combination is best for indoors, perhaps a cool vestibule, or outdoors during mild weather.

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My planter a few years ago was simple: imported cedar from British Columbia (much softer and greener than ours here), snipped wild rosehips and large pinecones.  Simple but effective, at least before it was covered with snow!

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A small yet jewel-like basket from Mill Street Florist.  Bark, cones, grapevine and greens combine with colourful berries, a rich rose and demure, artificial apples.

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Simple, natural displays can be all you need or want.

Consider that if you want red, winterberry and rosehips are entirely different in their effect…

While winterberry (left) is bold and lush and can be seen from a distance, rosehips (right) are much smaller and present a looser, more natural and spare effect.

Whatever you do, keep scale in mind.  A small arrangement is best reserved for the mantle or table-scape, while a large (weatherproof) urn works best next to your entry.

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Stuff, stuff, stuff; think about texture, movement and colour; and ensure it has impact.

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You don’t need to spend a lot of money.

Search the woods for different conifers and snip branches selectively.

Use dried flowers like hydrangea and seedheads like those from sumac and wildflowers.

And don’t forget to add height with dogwood, curly willow, birch branches or whatever you fancy.

Make something special and enjoy your creation through the holidays and beyond.

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Stick with me…

….and I promise to write on this blog more often!

Today’s gardening column in the Ottawa Citizen was my last.  That is because they have parted ways with their freelance writers – that’s right, as I understand, all of them.

Thank you so much for following me through my columns talking about gardens, plants, our struggles and triumphs.  It was a privilege writing for Ottawa’s paper for so many years.

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But, you’ll still find me here and hopefully in some other select gardening publications as well.

Stay tuned….