Thursday, March 29, 2007

Lilac stamps - rare kudos for Canada Post

Complaining about Canada Post is almost as ubiquitous as grumbling about the weather up here in the Great White North.

Ask anyone, especially Canucks trying to compete with US sellers on Ebay, and you’ll hear no end of complaints about exorbitant rates and poor service. (That's what we get for turning a government service into a monopolistic corporation that is expected to make a profit. And don't get anybody started on the postal unions and their many crippling strikes over the years.)

But today, I have to say something nice about Canada Post: the new lilac stamps they have issued this spring are the prettiest stamps I've ever seen.

These stamps have spring-fresh colours and curved lines to them, and are sold in a little folder of 10 with round lilac seals to put on the back of your letters. In fact, the stamps are so sweet I'm tempted (almost) to get out the good note paper and actually write a snail mail letter or two.

According to Canada Post, the lilacs on the stamps are Syringa vulgaris "Princess Alexandra", an early lilac with single white florets that originated in 1874 in Windsor, Ontario, and is the oldest Canadian hybrid lilac still found at the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa.

The mauve-purple lilac is Syringa x prestoniae "Isabella" named for Isabella Preston (1881-1965), a prolific plant breeder at the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa. She hybridized the late-blooming lilac hybrids that are named after her.

The lilac stamps are the work of Montreal graphic designer Isabelle Toussaint, who is to be congratulated for using photography with soft out-of-focus backgrounds to give the humble domestic postage stamp a real lush feeling of spring. Lovely work!

Read more about this stamp issue or buy the stamps at the Canada Post site.

Related information: An article on growing lilacs at my website.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Gardening and commitment

In my official life as a garden writer, I write a column aimed at beginner gardeners for Canadian Gardening magazine.

The editor, Aldona Satterthwaite, is a keen gardener and the magazine reflects that and does an excellent job of informing and entertaining gardeners (but, of course, I'm biased).

CG has an appropriate balance between gardening and what we magazine types call "lifestyle". Gardening = growing stuff, creating a garden. Lifestyle = buying the right teak bench.

This month (the May issue just out) in her editor's column, Aldona takes on the trend mongers and outdoor "decorators" who fall for one hot thing after the next, and who like to declare that gardening is over.

In her words:
"Of course, gardening isn't for everyone - it never was and never will be. But dead? Not any time soon. Sure, the human lemmings who flit from fad to fad may try it and move on, perhaps after finding out that buying an expensive, finicky exotic plant isn't quite the same as purchasing a designer sofa. Actually, it's a lot more like adopting a pet or having a baby, because we're talking three scary C-words here, folks - commitment, care and consistency. And whether you do it on a large-sized lot or a small balcony, that's pretty much the secret to being a successful gardener.

I have another bugbear. There's something afoot to try to make gardening synonymous with outdoor decorating. Outdoor decorating and outdoor leisure are two perfectly delightful and legitimate pursuits, but they ain't gardening. The best gardens are made with heart and soul and love, and owe little to fancy doodads (but a lot to the three Cs)."
Here! Here! I used to coordinate and write a lot of gardening articles for a women's magazine that shall remain nameless. We eventually fell out because of the very issue of exterior decorating: the editor I worked with actually said that they didn't want stories that necessitated getting your hands dirty.

I hated writing about exterior decorating, and that's mostly what they ended up wanting. The parting was mutual. After that, Canadian Gardening took me on, and I'm pleased that I actually get to write about growing things. By the way, I have piece on bearded irises and how to plant a tree in this May's issue.

To illustrate this post, I chose a picture of my four-square garden, which to me represents the epitome of commitment, as it is my most labor-intensive garden area. There are times when I'd like to rip out all the flowers and bulbs, and just plant a single crabapple tree with groundcovers in each of the four squares, but even doing that would be a huge task.

Then June comes, and my heart melts at this amazing thing of beauty that we have managed to create - and once again the three Cs see me through. That's gardening.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The crocuses that got away

Do all gardeners have pangs of regret when a new garden feature means the loss of some favorite plants? I do.

One of my husband John's interests over the past few years has been stone carving, and last fall a couple of pieces were placed in the garden (after the landscapers and the machinery needed for the job finally were able to make it - five months late).

One piece put into place (see pic below) is a huge and heavy granite basin that still needs to be hooked up to a water arrangement, the workings of which remain a mystery to me, even though the plan has been explained to me - and more than once. (For the sake of harmony in marriage, especially of two gardeners, one has to leave certain details to one's spouse's conception of them. The rock is supposed to be an Oriental style fountain, but I fret that water reservoir won't be big enough.)

Anyway, I'm a bit sad to discover that the stone has covered up spring bulbs, including some of my favorite early crocuses. The perennials we moved out of the way in the fall, but, of course, one couldn't easily remember which bulbs were where.

However, we gardeners can't just be bleeding hearts when it comes to plants. There are more crocuses where those came from and, after all, plants aren't family pets.

I was reminded of this by Ursula Buchan, a columnist in one of my favorite British gardening magazines, The Garden, who recently wrote about the need for gardeners to cultivate a touch of ruthlessness:
"When I was young and green, I asked a respected and, it must be said, charming horticulturalist what characteristics helped make a good gardener. His reply was: 'Well, being a mean, ruthless b*****d helps!' I was so taken aback that I have never forgotten it, but in the years since, I have increasingly thought that he had a point."
I agree with her that to get to the goal of a well-designed garden, we gardeners "must be ruthless about what we throw out, and steadfast in that resolve."

But it isn't easy to let plants go without regret, especially ones we didn't mean to, like the poor bulbs under the rock.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Insect heros - you'll never guess

Over at their Gardening and Yardening blog, Nancy Szerlag, the gardener, and Jeff Ball, the yardener, make the point that the much maligned creepy crawlies of the garden, the ants, spiders, and ground beetles, are our best allies against pests:
...we are talking about six to a dozen species of each. There are big ants, small ants, brown ants, and black ants. There are jumping spiders, stalking spiders, and web spinning spiders. Among the ground beetles you might find Assassin Bugs, Big Eyed Bugs, Rove Beetles, Soldier Beetles, and even Minute Pirate Bugs, all fearsome names for a bunch of good guys.

These beneficial insects represent a veritable army of protection for landscape plants, yet they get no respect. They get no credit. They get no attention, except in books talking about killing these critters. They really need to hire a PR firm to get their story out.
I agree wholeheartedly, and Jeff and Nancy do a great PR job for them. For the full article, see beneficial insects.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Red-winged blackbirds are back

We heard our first red-winged blackbird call yesterday, and my heart melted. I just love red-winged blackbirds: aside from flowers, of course, they are my favorite sign of spring.

Something about them has wormed its way into my soul. Their call, which admittedly is not the most beautiful of bird songs, has a lot of resonance for me. I think it's because they were a part of my childhood. Their habitat is agricultural areas with wetlands, and they were plentiful on the farm near London, Ontario, where I grew up. The farm had a creek running through it and ponds nearby.

Our property also has a creek and we have a couple of ponds too, and there are many ponds at the neighboring golf course, so red-wing black birds are abundant here.

It struck me that in all the years of living in cities I hadn't heard or seen them much. When I heard them again when we moved here nine years ago, I felt that I had come home.

Go to to hear a really nice recording of the red-winged blackbird's call.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The green fuse has been lit

Yippee, the first day of daylight saving time* and the start of our gardening season. Yes, we started "gardening" today - by moving plants - even though there’s still snow on the ground.

Temperatures are now above freezing and all the white stuff is beginning to melt. (But there was still enough snow on the ground to take the dogs on their morning and afternoon walks with snowshoes on - it would have been very hard going without them.)

What prompted us to action was the weather forecast for Tuesday: we're expecting a high of 14ºC (57º for you Fahrenheit folks), with Wednesday bit cooler, but still in the double digits. Thanks to the greenhouse effect, 14ºC means it will easily get well above 20º (68ºF) in our hoop house (plastic-covered greenhouse).

After looking the forecast, we knew today was the day to move the dormant plants out of the greenhouse where they’ve been all winter. We don’t heat the greenhouse, and the plants freeze, but they’re protected from the worst of the cold and, especially, ice storms or rain in mid-January, which can be fatal.

Aside from a few hardy things I have in containers and my neighbor’s containerized boxwoods, the plants that winter in the hoop house are mostly my husband’s rock garden plants. Each year, he starts a number of species from seed and grows them on in pots until they’re big enough to go into his rock garden to replace plants that died over winter, are underperforming or that he doesn't like anymore (usually because they’ve grown too big and unwieldy).

As it begins to warm up in March, we try to keep the dormant plants from getting too much of a head start. We don’t want them to start to grow and flower too soon: they’re supposed to do that in the garden.

So after a couple of hours of hauling and moving this afternoon, the dormant plants are in the barn where they will be cooler, but still protected from seriously bad weather. During the daytime we can open the barn doors to give them light and air.

We also took the large rosemary plants that we grow in containers back to the hoop house. They were in there until Christmas, but because they’re Zone 7 plants and the hoop house gets too cold on bitter nights, they had to spend the rest of the winter under lights in the basement.

As we like to say at this time of year: “The green fuse has been lit.” Soon we’ll be racing to keep up with all that needs to be done.

By the way, the "green fuse" metaphor is from a poem by Dylan Thomas entitled The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.

*Extended daylight saving time: one of the few decisions by the US Congress supported by the majority of Canadians, or at least those who are gardeners.

PS: I don't believe for a moment that daylight saving time actually saves energy (the reason it has been started earlier), but extra evening light is wonderful for those of us who aren't morning people.

Equipment for country gardeners

How's this for a garden accessory? Heck, every country gardener could use one of these. Maybe not all the time, but skid-steer loaders save a lot of back work when you're doing heavy garden construction jobs.

I took this picture at Canada Blooms, the big flower and garden show that finishes its five-day run in Toronto today. The show rarely features heavy equipment, so I have no idea why this machine was display.

My husband has rented skid-steers for a couple of jobs. Here he is on the machine a few years ago in the earlier stages of our garden making. The heavy equipment came in handy for moving the rocks, soil and gravel for creating his rock garden.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Is gardening is a luxury?

Came across this quotation from the great English gardener Vita Sackville-West while clearing out files today:

Gardening is a luxury occupation; an ornament, not a necessity, of life. The farmer is not at all concerned with the eventual beauty of his corn as a feature in the landscape, though, indeed, he gets a certain satisfaction out of it, as he leans against his gate on a summer evening, and sees his acres gently curving to the breeze. Still, beauty is not his primary aim; the gardener's is. Fortunate gardener, who may preoccupy herself solely with beauty in these difficult and ugly days! She is one of the few people left in this distressful world to carry on the tradition of elegance and charm. A useless member of society, considered in terms of economics, she must not be denied her rightful place. She deserves to share it, however humbly, with the painter and the poet.

-Vita Sackville-West, from Country Notes