Category Archives: happiness

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!)


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……….


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.


To cut or not to cut?

Autumn always brings a certain anxiety in the gardening me.  To clean up or not to clean up?

It’s true that our spring season is so fast it seems but a whisper before the heat of summer — so leaving too much to do until then is a fool’s folly (is that a redundant expression?)  But taking down the glory that is autumn is just wrong when it is so beautiful —


Reds, like the flashing fiery foliage of dwarf burning bush (Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’) and late season colour of Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’, are set off against the complementary green provided by Cotoneaster dammeri ‘Coral Beauty’, Iris pseudoacorus and Paeonia lactiflora.  The Cotoneaster and peony leaves have yet to show their full autumn colour but will soon enough.  The powdery blue of upright juniper (Juniperus scopularum ‘Wichita Blue’), blue fescue grass (Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’) and donkey tail spurge (Euphorbia myrsinites) provide a striking foil for the reds — perhaps their true destiny through all the preceding months.


In advance of the Cotoneaster display, which will include bright red berries, the lace shrub puts on a show of it’s own with delicate, cascading golden foliage.


Lavender joins the glaucous club while the blue trim of the house relates to them all.

Happily, the blues don’t need cutting, nor do the shrubs.  I took advantage of this visit to cut down the shasta daisy (Leucanthemum x superbum) but there will have to be a return visit after the first hard frost to continue cutting…

My little (mostly) shade garden

I thought I would post a few pictures from my own garden, which this year saw more of us because we weren’t distracted (and made exhausted and dejected) by our allotment.  We had the latter for three seasons (felt like 50) and each successive summer became more trying than the last.  Never-ending weeding, re-clearing and re-clearing again, no stake that could hold up our monumental tomatoes, nuclear bomb-proof horsetail and ragweed plants that mocked us every time we came.  My vision of a veggie plot like this one (at Longwood Gardens near Philadelphia):

I wish...
No, this is not my garden…

… ended up looking more like this tangle:

harvest 032
…this was my tomato patch…

But enough of that.  Onward and upward.  I figure to have a veggie plot that looked like the one in Longwood Gardens you’d have to employ a dozen horticulture interns or at least spend 8 hours a day at your plot, taking coffee breaks in your lean-to, like those eastern European gentlemen I have seen who have beet juice running through their veins ….

Back to my little shade garden.


I tend to be attracted to perennials with unusual foliage or flowers that are ‘non’ flowers (like the delicate spires of Heuchera or Heucherella, or the weird blossoms of Astrantia).  But perhaps no plant has thrilled me more this summer than Astilboides tabularisa knock-your-socks-off shade loving perennial that can reach 3 to 6 feet tall while in flower.  Mine hasn’t done that yet, but the foliage alone is worth looking for and seizing this plant when you find it.


 It is possible to get carried away with foliage.  I clearly am in this jam-packed vignette…

…. that I may have to edit next spring.

You can see how small our urban plot actually is in this shot; and much to Skye’s chagrin, we have banished grass from this postage stamp garden.


And looking right, you’ll see the other half of the garden which abuts our ivy-laden garage.


After wrestling the creeping bellflower out of this sunny bed in the spring and giving the celandine poppy a reprieve, I fulfilled my promise to liberate my terracotta “oil jar” from under the back porch.  Now it takes centre stage, with a planting of tropicals that I snagged at the Montreal Botanical Garden’s Great Gardening Weekend sale back in May.

Forgive the exposed rim...

Can you count and name the number of plants in the foreground of this shot (not including the containerized ones)?

And tell me about the rusty sculpture….?


Here is an easier one; just four plants ;c)

Earth Day 2014 and a challenge….

In honour of Earth Day, especially when this day in 2014 is grey and wet and there is little colour yet to be seen, I give you hope but I also give you a challenge….


How are you celebrating?  Have you gone searching for the earliest spring blooming perennials in your garden?


Did you skip your clean-up last fall and are you having now to unearth blooms from under a blanket of wet leaves?


Are you seeing these beauties in other peoples’ gardens?  Are you now making plans for this autumn, searching for Chionodoxa, primrose and other jewels to enjoy in your own space next spring?


This spring, I challenge you to not simply look down and appreciate the plants.  I challenge you to take a garbage bag with you on your next walk and pick up plastic, pop cans, other peoples’ trash — there is nothing that makes a landscape more unhappy and feel more unloved.   And if this blight is on your regular commute, you see it everyday and it chisels away part of your soul and your feelings of hope for the future.   Make the world, your small piece of the world, a place that can bring joy instead of discouragement.  Honour a small part of your world and clean it up.  Do it in honour of Earth Day…

But do more than this:  tell me about it!  Take “before” and “after” photos and I’ll post them — and give you kudos for a job well done.


Vicarious interlude – a preamble

After re-reading my last post, I realize I don’t really want to push anyone over the edge right now, as the weather is doing a mighty fine job of that all by itself.

Let’s instead have some moments of calm, with heat and sun, shall we?  Get in the groove by closing your eyes for a moment, and then scroll on…


This was one of the beaches we visited on Isla Mujeres off the coast of Cancun, on Mexico’s east coast.  (Aside:  If you visit, you must spend some time cuddling puppies at Isla Animales.)


It was a beach lounge — you could stay all day if you spent about $50 in food and drinks.  A pleasure, I say.  As did my apparently chubby left foot.  When we were there, there were two ladies with massage tables set up on the far left, out of the picture.  Did I indulge?  You bet.


But if you want spectacular and spectacularly lush landscapes, then the Flower Forest in Barbados is the place to go.  Aren’t the trunks of those palms just pure serenity?


If you would like to lounge away in paradise, then my recommendation is the Grand Case Beach Club on the island of St-Martin.  But don’t count on the free upgrade; ensure you have a great room or you may be disappointed with your view.  *This* is what you want.


Or if it’s the joy of our climate, but in the steamy summer, do you remember these days?


cef - 2011 030

I know so far this post has been a terrible cheat:  places I’ve been, things I’ve seen…but we need to remember during these dark days the joys that come with summer memories and travel to distant places.

Speaking of which, I will be heading south soon and will let you follow on our travels.  With Skye-dog, of course.


The Christmas season is upon us and I have noticed that everyone is distracted.  People seem to be driving around town wrapped in a fog of multi-tasking, walking in and out of stores with a grim determination rather than a smile.

Excuse me while I slow down the pace a little bit.


It is such a beautiful time of year, especially with this layer of healing snow.  As gardeners, it allows us the opportunity to rest and reflect.


 If you can, take a moment to think about your year.  What were the highlights?  Here are some of mine…


First, and perhaps most importantly for me, celebrating another year with my beloved Skye-dog.  As many of you know, she was diagnosed with lymphoma when she was 8 1/2 years old back in February 2011.  After undergoing six months of chemotherapy and complementary holistic care, the first with Dr. Bravo and her team at Alta Vista Animal Hospital and the second with Dr. Eddie Beltran at Blair Animal Hospital, Skye-dog remains healthy and in remission.  We are very grateful and hope that she stays with us for another lifetime.  Surely not too much to ask.


My trip to Francis Cabot’s garden known as Les Quatres Vents with my friend Patti was a bit of a marathon, in a good way.  A long drive and much anticipation ended in several hours of horticultural wonder, not to mention post-viewing garden analysis.




Les Quatres Vents 078

If that wasn’t enough of a feast for the eyes, I saw the spectacular glass creations of Dale Chihuly at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, which were just so alive and organic.




My year was also filled with smaller, but no less meaningful moments…














Slow down, take a breath.  What have your moments been?