Category Archives: my projects

Allotment garden memories: Summer 2012

I thought I’d take a look back at our 2012 allotment garden season.  Such a clean slate back in May!  Still there are some straw bales left over from the first year, but much has already been laid down on both the beds (to keep weeds suppressed and the moisture in) and the pathways.

Our virgin outing on May 24th, 2012.  Armed with forks, home-grown seedlings and bonemeal.

Tomato plants laid out much further apart this year than last.  And only about 6 or 8 plants this year instead of double that from last year!

And greens seeds are going in!

A few weeks later there is already bounty… ‘Monet’s Garden Mesclun’ from Renee’s Seeds was insect-free.

Not so much with the ‘Spicy Greens’ mix, where it looks like slugs or earwigs have been leaving their mark.

I set aside one whole bed for seeding annuals and other cutting flowers.  I scattered the seed in the last week of May and a few weeks later, the fruits of my moderate labour were sprouting.  It’s hard to tell what’s a weed and what’s worth keeping at this stage so you just have to watch and wait.

By late July, the garden is bounteous with flowers ready for cutting for the next two months.  Borage, cosmos, zinnias, nasturtium and others, with hollyhock putting on a first year’s growth.

A bucket full in the back of the car!

Fresh cut flowers in the house make everything better.

All the yellow surrounding our plot is goldenrod; not the source of my terrible hay fever last year since that was courtesy of ragweed.  I believe the mechanical cultivation of the rear of our garden last spring gave the goldenrod seed a chance sprout, making the section that we didn’t weed full of it by the late summer!

Even with extra muscle, digging the mid-summer weeds out of the ‘last frontier’ was back-breaking work.  And don’t be thinking I didn’t do any of that labour; I was the dirtiest, sweatiest one there!

This past summer was very hot and dry.  Despite the parched lawns and droopy plants elsewhere, our allotment didn’t seem worse for wear.  We didn’t have any regular irrigation other than putting on the sprinkler every so often – and this was mainly to soften up the soil that we’d be weeding.

Goodnight allotment garden.  See you next spring.

Painting and panting: what have you been doing in this heat?

Where the heck have I been?

Well, I thought logically, that if we were stuck in the house for a portion of this heat wave that Ottawa has been having, we should be doing something constructive.

Painting anyone?

No, I said ‘painting’ not ‘panting’!

It’s been so hot and dry that lawns are looking like this.  The only bright spot here is the chicory, with its luminous blue flowers, not showing any ill effects from the lack of water.

You would think that our allotment would also be showing signs of serious thirst.  We visited in the middle of the drought and found that the annuals and biennials that I grew from seed were looking no worse for wear.

The zinnias and clarkia are stealing the show, but the borage is also looking stunning.

The allotment so far has produced some really beautiful produce:

This ‘Bright Lights’ rainbow chard has been harvested several times for an excellent vitamin-rich vegetable.  I saute it with garlic and onions, and serve it alongside a broiled salmon filet.  Yum.

And these beets are a variety of jewel-toned specimens – red, gold and candystripe!   I’ve harvested a few (haven’t found the gold ones yet), cooked them up and had them in a lovely beet salad with locally made goat cheese that I purchased at our local farmer’s market from Clarmell on the Rideau in Manotick.

Many of the veggies I’m growing in the allotment are from seed I obtained from Renee’s Garden, a seed producer in Felton, California.

Renee Shepherd has been in the seed business since 1985.  After completing a PhD and teaching Environmental Studies she opened Renee’s Garden in 1997.  Through her work with Shepherd’s Seeds (1985 – 1996) and Renee’s Garden Seeds, she has made many ‘exotic’ varieties of vegetables and herbs just a phone call or email away to us gardeners around the world.  She says:

This seed line is my personal selection of new, exciting and unusual seed choices of time-tested heirlooms, the best international hybrids and fine open-pollinated varieties. I  harvest and use the vegetables and herbs in my kitchen to choose the most delicious, and cut the flowers for bouquets tColorful seed packetso select the finest colors, forms and fragrances. Our varieties are tested and guaranteed for every major US climate zone.

We have been clearing more and more of our allotment as time and the weather allows, making space for some new shrubs that I am trialing (more on that later) and a spicebush (Lindera benzoin) that I obtained from Connons Nursery from my friend Dan Clost (who along with working at a very large and well-known nursery also happens to be an excellent tale spinner and writer).  It is a native shrub that is the host plant for the caterpillar that transforms into the swallowtail butterfly and is a great alternative to the comparatively loud forsythia – if you can find it, that is!

Of course the other imperative necessitating finding space to grow large shrubs is to provide shade for said companion, Skye-dog:

For our allotment has none.  And Skye spends much of her time while we’re there sitting in the car :c(

So, the painting is complete, the heat wave has subsided just a tad, and more work in my own garden (and those of my clients) beckon.

Secret garden in the city

This is a garden that belongs to a friend and client, and that I secretly covet because it is so peaceful and private.

It has been a work in progress over the last several years, not least of which due to the challenges of planting under a very large, very thirsty Norway maple (you can see its trunk sandwiched between the lattice panels).

This is the first year the rhododendron has bloomed significantly, but clearly it needs some attention as its leaves appear chlorotic – not the yellow we were going for!

These lattice panels and fencing allow for privacy without the feeling of being closed in.  They also provide some textural interest along a flat plane that divides the properties.

Two stepped planters along the rear next to the maple’s trunk provide added planting space that is (theoretically) not taken up by maple roots and allows for more vertical interest in a confined space.

The challenge here has also been to provide intermediate height:  somewhere between the overwhelming maple canopy and the scale of the perennials.  We have achieved this with several small trees and shrubs:  a serviceberry, a dogwood, a witchhazel, a ‘Bloodgood’ Japanese maple and a transplanted purple-leafed sandcherry.

We have also used a lot of yellow to brighten up this secret garden.

Never underestimate the power of the hosta :c)

Sun or shade: containers for both!

Now that my hands are better from my poison ivy encounter, I have made more containers for clients.

Here are more shots of  two I completed for a west-facing front door.

And its smaller brother:

Many people think that planters for sunny locations are a cinch compared to those for a shady spot.  But I disagree.

Think ferns, Caladium, Astilbe, sweet potato vine, Browallia, Plectranthus and red-leaf lettuce!

And don’t forget Coleus –

What’s in your container?

Rolling woolly desert!

Look what I did today!

This succulent and cacti planter was commissioned by the plant-loving owner of MediaStyle, Ian Capstick.   Ian and I first met when he worked as a ‘barista’ at our local Starbucks when I ran Hortus Urbanus.  Little did I know that while I was forming a personal attachment to non-fat, decaf lattes, Ian was developing a profound love of plants.

So when he was looking for inspiration for his new office space in downtown Ottawa, he contacted me.   Ian had already purchased a 2′ x 2′ woolly planter from these people, called Lil’ Meadow, and I had to think of a way to plant it up that would be striking and different.

Because their new office space had floor to ceiling west-facing windows, I thought a mini Arizona or desert garden would be interesting.  I used a selection of succulents and cacti, including some Haworthia, a Kalanchoe thyrsiflora and an assortment of my favourite succulent, Echeveria.

This planter will require very little care:  a little water, no significant fertilizing, bright light and hardly any tweaking (no falling foliage and few spent flowers).  I completed the project by finishing it off with a mulch of peastone.

And Ian was thinking ahead by placing it on a rolling platform so it can be turned this way and that, always seeking out the sun.

Red Fife wheat and keeping our seedy heritage alive

This is my newest, favourist thing.  Bread made entirely with Red Fife wheat flour.  This loaf has loads of flavour; it is nutty and rich, with a texture that is dense and chewy.  The perfect kind of bread for cold, late season days. 

Red Fife wheat was named after David  Fife, my great, great, great grandfather (on my father’s mother’s side) who came to Canada from Scotland in 1820. 

David Fife's cabin circa 1820s, Otonabee Township, Peterborough County

Early records indicate a friend sent him seed from Glasgow that he had found on a ship originating from Danzig.  It turned out this was an ideal strain of wheat for the unpredictable and unforgiving Canadian climate.  It was the first wheat that was grown successfully and reliably on the prairies and kick-started the industry in that tough, colonial century.  It is, therefore, a heritage wheat, the parent of all varieties grown in Canada today.

Lang Mill; where Red Fife wheat was ground into flour from the 1840s onward

This wheat was, for the most part, lost by the end of the 19th century when other, earlier to harvest and therefore more industry friendly, strains became favoured.  But Red Fife remained a parent to many of these hybrids.  Throughout most of the 20th century, this oldest strain of ‘heritage’ wheat was only being kept alive in seed banks and by small scale seed savers.   It was all but unknown to Canadians until the beginning of this century when Sharon Rempel in Victoria, B.C. and a group of passionate slow food activists, chefs, seed savers and others sought out some of these old world grains to grow again. 

When Sharon Rempel planted her seeds she had a vision: someday Red Fife would be grown again commercially. To a considerable degree, that image has materialized. Red Fife is produced by small-scale farmers—mostly, if not exclusively, organic—who grow it outside the Wheat Board’s tracking system. The movement originated in the West and from there gradually spread across the country. In 2007, approximately five hundred tons of Red Fife was harvested, from as far west as the Gulf Islands in British Columbia to eastern Nova Scotia. Interestingly, it didn’t return to County Road 4 until 2005 when four women, all of whom live and farm on David Fife Line, decided to resurrect this forgotten chapter in their local history.

“We realized we lived on David Fife Line and very few people had any sense of what that meant,” commented Helen Knibb, a member of the Fife Line Sisterhood, as they christened themselves. “We felt compelled to acknowledge our agricultural history; it’s part of our heritage.”

They contacted Saskatchewan farmer Marc Loiselle (, who became interested in Red Fife in 2001, and has made it his mission to provide seeds for growers across the country. Virtually all the Red Fife seed planted in Ontario comes from him, although local farmers are starting to produce their own. The Sisterhood planted one-and-a-quarter acres their first year, and, with the help of local farmer Peter Leahy, who was growing a small amount himself, produced a second crop, but they didn’t have the infrastructure to grow the grain on a much larger scale and bowed out of the business. Leahy’s interest was whetted and he has gradually increased the quantity he grows at Merrylynd, his certified organic family farm just outside Peterborough, Ontario. Last year he planted fifty acres, a relatively large quantity in the Red Fife world.

Like others I spoke with, Leahy says he doesn’t have enough to keep up with the demand. “People from Jamie Kennedy’s called me recently,” he told me in early April, “but I couldn’t give them any flour. I need to keep some for seed.” At least two other farmers are growing Red Fife in Ontario—Patricia Hastings at the Centre for Integrated Pest Management (CIPM) in Madoc and Sean McGivern of Saugeen Specialty Grains in the Owen Sound area.

Today, you can buy Red Fife flour in bulk at select locations like the Wheat Berry on Main Street in Ottawa, or go direct to Patricia Hastings’ farm in Madoc.