Second Annual gratitude Day and Open Garden Update

 Here at Half-Acre Eden* we continue to blossom, growing a combination of food and beauty.  There have been many changes this year.  The compost pile just inside the garden gate is gone and we are developing the soil with our own compost, made primarily from garden and household waste, and with mulches. 

 We used up the bought compost by enlarging the bed in the centre of the yard to take advantage of the full sun.  This bed is home to many tomatoes.  Margaret decided to try every variety of tomato in our decades-old seed collection.  She is taking notes.  Next year, she claims, we will grow only those we liked.  Please, remind us in February!

 We took a risk and added black current bushes.  Ribes (currents & gooseberries) family carry White Pine Rust so I had reservations about them as we live with a White Pine in the yard.  Perhaps the newer varieties might not be carriers, but the black currents are delicious. 

This bed is ringed with parsley, onions and carrots to keep the rabbits at bay.  It works.  However, the newly started parts of this bed are cardboard-and-compost, like all our gardens here so of course the root crops won’t mature through the cardboard.  This year we have will eat many green onions and baby carrots!

We hooked up our rain barrels to soaker hoses throughout the gardens.  What a steep learning curve: how high and where to place the barrels; how to arrange the hoses; and on and on.  We think the current system works.  The rain and time will teach us.

 We continue to develop the area behind the *Little House*.  Margaret especially claims this space and has created a beautiful and productive fruit-vegetable-flower area.  Larkspur, snapdragons and roses grow cheek-and-jowl with peas, beans, and brassicae.  We laughed at the volunteer potatoes which appeared in unexpected abundance.

 The back fence-line is now home to the gorgeous fall-blooming white clematis along with shade loving perennials and shrubs.  Soon the Clethra (summer sweet) will bloom along with Yellow Bells.  Margaret cleared out the entrance to our venerable Yew and planted perennial ground covers (wild ginger, tiarella and lamium) as well as annual begonias.

 We have a lot to learn about tree fruits.  The peach behind the Little House survived once we understood how to irrigate it properly.  We will begin the espalier process soon.  Our other fruit trees bloomed beautifully but mostly haven’t held their fruits.  Margaret says that they are settling in and will bear in due course.

 With the compost pile gone, we began to look at the fence-line that runs from the East corner towards the South.  We added strawberries in front of the raspberries and extended that bed.  Acknowledging the limits of our gardening energy, we planted that area with understory trees and shrubs and low-maintenance perennials.  Spring’s show of viburnum, tamarisk, red-purple dwarf lilac (Pocahontas) and finally, a pale pink flowering dwarf spirea was truly amazing.  Next year the Black Lace Elderberry will catch up with the rest. 

 The front of that bed holds pieces of my hybrid day lily collection, a few phlox and irises.  This year I have begun to divide the daylilies and they will be available for purchase on a rotating basis.  A spectacular red cabbage is a focal point and the ubiquitous kale found a spot as well.  Roses and a small Japanese Maple connects that side with the berries.  The wild lupine seeds I scattered last fall are germinating.   I can hardly wait until they bloom.

 The remainder of the East fence will wait.  We expect to plant small trees and shrubs to keep maintenance at a minimum.  It will also house part of our hosta collection.  If you have known me for some time you will laugh.  I once scorned hostas.  But their diversity has grown on me and chance has brought some beauties my way. 

 This year marks hydrangea success: my beloved oak-leaf hydrangea is blooming.  Check it out in the corner just under the White pine.  Margaret’s Lace-Cap Hydrangea is also finally blooming.  Lace-caps are especially interesting because their small fertile flowers are surrounded by showy sterile flowers.  All the better to attract insect pollinators.

 Our biggest challenge remains the front.  After several attempts with “native” ground covers, I added deeply rooted perennials and scattered columbine seed.  They appeared to *take* amidst the tree roots, but the irises didn’t bloom and the Echinacea is a pale cousin to those in the back.  The Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ is doing just fine, thank you!  We added a beautiful Pagoda Dogwood.  But it struggled so we moved it to the back where it is thriving.  One lone red bud which came as a mere shoot is soldiering along. 

 

  * We call our place *Half Acre Eden* in tribute to Organic Gardening writer Gene Lodgson who, in 1971 pioneered the food sustainability movement with his book, Two Acre Eden.  We give his memory our sincerest gratitude.

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Joys…and learnings…of the retail life

Recently I ventured into new territory: retail!  One might wonder why, after years of avoiding the commercial side of life, I might chose to immerse myself in the melee?

The answer is simple: need!

Although I have been living in London, Ontario for 16 months, and am making inroads towards establishing my various business ventures, they are not, as yet, self-supporting.  These things take time.  I am a patient person, but sometimes I get hungry!  Not hungry for food, mind you, my beloved and our gardens provide ample sustenance.  I get hungry for connecting people with this good, green earth and her plants!  I LOVE my work: outside with the plants and their people in the gardening times of the year, sitting at the loom in winter, and the spiritual connections that weave it all together. 

 When the opportunity to become the staff horticulturalist at one of the temporary garden centres that mysteriously mushrooms up here in London appeared, I jumped on it.  After all, next to getting dirty, what could be more fun that talking with people about plants all day?

The plants at this particular garden centre are robust and vibrant.  Thanks to the massive amounts of rain, they are well watered.  And, in addition to chatting, I tend the plants, a favourite pastime!

I have met the some fascinating people!  It’s not totally surprising, who else would be interested in plants.  But I’ve been so busy creating landscapes of small, understory trees and shrubs, interplanting ornamentals with food crops, and sprinkling cutting flowers in with vegetables, I never even considered the pros and cons of matching hanging baskets. I had, in fact, never met the hanging planter set! 

 I’ll never forget that first day.  “Where are the white falling stars?  I get them here EVERY year!  No, the blue ones won’t do.  They don’t go with my patio furniture!”  Then there was the requests for “spikes”.  It took a few tries before I understood that these were the tall, annual grasses for the middle of planters!  My eyes grew wide and wider.  The learning curve has been steep.  There are calls for the new-this-year “black” petunias! The plea, “well I got it here last year…..”  And the ever-present, “I don’t remember what it was called, but I liked it…..” became a challenge of 20 questions.

Periodically I take refuge in the roses, amazed at the varieties we carry,  I could talk about them all day. 

I also get to show people how to evaluate plant stock. “Look for the the strongest branching or the most buds, they’ll give you a longer-lasting *show*.”

There are the families in new houses; or those ripping out overgrown foundation plantings, or planting after building an addition.  Some arrive with diagrams of their yards, seeking small trees and shrubs to fill them.  I walk them through the garden centre and talk about the sturdy assortment of shrubs, their needs and desires, their like or dislike of gardening and help to match them up. 

Especially rewarding are those who are stumped by the question “what do you like?” This opens the possibility of self-discovery.  We walk through the tables and racks, discussing the various options as they open to what they actually DO like.  And what are they willing to take care of.  Gardening is a journey of self-discovery. 

I loved talking with the woman looking for specialised plants that thrive in specific places.  We traded sources and growing tips.  Several people despair of gardening in the shade, just needing a bit of information about shade-loving perennials, a personal favourite! 

Many people are joyous to discover the selection of Ontario Native plants.  They also enjoy the nesting ducks who call the garden centre home.  Some come back just to check on the duck’s progress.  The ducks come, I am told, every year.  When the eggs hatch, the staff makes a ramp as the ducklings emerge from their roosts to be escorted across the busy parking lot and roadway to the bog.

 Recently I noticed a mother and daughter with a plant problem.  They were carrying a couple of large planters and wanted something to put in them.  By now I was an old hand, so I offered to help.

 The daughter has a North-facing balcony that required privacy.  She didn’t care about flowers, she said.  Perhaps hangingBostonferns would work, but she seemed doubtful.  I showed them coleus, and then hanging ivy. I was gesturing towards the display of shade-loving annual flowers when the young woman spoke up, “they’re not big enough!” 

 I looked at her hard and said something like, “They’ll grow!”

 “Not fast enough!”

 I considered explaining that the nature of plants, like other living things, is to start small and grow larger when she spoke up, “I want something to keep people from looking at my balcony when I run around naked!”

 The situation became clear.  I assured her that when I had bought and cleared my land we left 100+ feet of woods between us and the road precisely so I could garden naked.  I understand the desire.

 We had considered several options when I turned to the mother, “do you have a yard?  If your daughter used evergreen shrubs for privacy, could you winter them over when she wants to put her clothes back on?  That way you could use this investment for several years”

A smothered giggle from the mother made me turn to notice a gentleman behind me smirking.  Laughing, we moved aside and continued discussing the situation.  I was charmed both by the daughter’s desire and by the mother’s support.  After a while the daughter turned to her mother and asked, “Well, what should I do?”

The mother’s quick response made my day, “You expect ME to make up your mind?” With a pang of delight and nostalgia for my own daughter, I took this as my cue to exit.

 When I saw them again they were moving towards the cash register, planters and plants in hand, chatting amiably, clearly comfortable with their decisions.  When asked, they agreed that I could write their story.

 Heart full, I moved along to the next people, each with their own particular question or need.  Working retail at this busy season has been quite the teacher, responding to each customer in their turn, meeting the urgency or desire of the moment, treasuring their individuality and stretching to hold it sacred.

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To Forget-Me-Not…or not!

O.K., the forget-me-nots got away from me.  Some would swear that IS the nature of forget-me-nots!  But they captivate my heart as I anticipate their gorgeous river of sky blue winding through the mid-Spring gardens.  And I am totally willing to rip out their plentiful little seed heads a few short weeks later!

Forget Me Not

Forget Me Not

I have a similar relationship with foxgloves.  And, these past couple of years with kale. And, at some houses, with parsley!  Is there a theme here?  Well, maybe!  I confess to a fascination with the life-cycle of biennials!

It all has to do with their life cycle; you know…..plant sex!  Annuals are great; well they DO bloom a long time, right? But they also complete their life cycle every year.  You start with a seed.  It grows into a plant.  It flowers. It sets fruit.  And it makes the seed for future generation(s).  All in a single growing season.  You know the types: tomatoes and peppers, beans, lettuce and squash, petunias and zinnias and snapdragons and those others we’ve been planting in between the rain.

Then there are the perennials.  They come up from their roots, larger and lush every year.  They grow leaf and stems, they flower and, they may or may not set seed, depending on how hybridized they are.  We gardeners may *deadhead* them to prevent their seeding all over the garden….. or we may not bother.  After they flower, most perennials die back.  Or we cut them back as their leaves brown.

By fall, or certainly the following spring, we generally cut them back and compost their refuse to manage the gardens and keep down over-wintering insect pests.

The following spring, there they are again, in more or less the same space, larger and vibrant as they had been before.

But biennials are a whole different story!  They take two years to complete their life cycles.  That first year, they are small, green things, easily mistaken for weeds.  The second year, they return as larger green plants, but soon send up flowering stalks which, of course, fruit and set seed.

The exciting part is synchronising with this cycle so the biennials appear to bloom each year.  I watch carefully as the flowers, in this case forget-me-nots, bloom.  After a week or 10 days, the flower stalks lengthen and where each tiny flower has faded and fallen, there remains a small, seed-laden ovary. Within the next couple of weeks, as the seed pods darken and mature, I rip out multitudes of the most visible of the plants which, by now, getting in the way of other plants.  But I leave a generous supply of ripening seeds towards the back of the bed.

In a few weeks when the forget-me-not seed pods are black, they are ripe.  Running my fingers along the stalks, I scatter the seeds where I want next year’s gorgeous river of blue.  And wait.

Come mid-summer, the area will be carpeted with tiny green forget-me-not seedlings.  I try to remember what they are.  But if I don’t, there are so many there’s no chance I could weed them all out!

Now the baby forget-me-nots have their first year of growth the same growing season as their mothers matured.  And the following year I can look forward to that river of blue that runs along the south side of the gardens.

Several other favourite plants follow this same cycle.  It works really easily with foxgloves, parsley, kale, or even carrots.  Saving and distribute your own seed if fun and a great way to get closer to your garden..

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Early spring rituals: planting, clearing…..and discovering

 It’s time to get started!  The onions and leeks, broccoli, cabbage, and brussel sprouts we planted last month and put under lights in the basement are now on the back deck where they are getting used to real sun and wind.  We expect to plant them out in the garden over the week-end, hopefully just before it rains! 

 At the same time we’ve been planting greens directly in the ground! And radishes, carrots and pok choy; beets and peas.  It’s true, the garden season is here.  We started our tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants which are now warm and germinating on top of the tallest kitchen cupboard.  As soon as they peek through the soil, they will take up residence under the lights for a few weeks until they become seedlings.  We hope to eat well through the summer and next winter, too.

 But wonder of spring wonders, as we’ve been cleaning the gardens we began harvesting leeks and last night feasted on spring leek soup, one of the great delicacies of all times in my book.  We also found 5 renegade carrots, spring carrots being the sweetest carrots ever grown.

 I became convinced that what I thought was Redbore Kale must actually be perennial kale when I remembered getting seeds at the Urban Gardeners’ Conference at the U. of Guelph in 2009.  I cut back the tops of this gorgeous plant, just like the roses, and it is sprouting all along each stem!  Admirable behaviour.  We ate last year’s tops for dinner.  It’s not just red kale that seems to be returning; today I’m investigating some green-with-purple-vein kale in another part of the yard.  It is more vibrant than expected after a long winter.  I admit to being a kale junkie. 

 But it’s not only vegetables that pull me into the gardens.  The spring bulbs are blooming away.  Yesterday I found 2 fully blooming blue hyacinths as well as the usual assortment of crocuses and squill.  How I drool over the squill lawns onQueen Street. 

 Blood root has also popped out in little clumpsALLOVER the yard.  I am so happy to see it thriving.  Actually a native wild flower, Bloodroot is among the first to bloom.  A medicinal plant, its common name comes from the red-orange “blood” that comes from its roots.  With 5 pure white petals and golden stamens and pistil, it is striking, if tiny.  It sits close to the ground and emerges tightly wrapped in its leaf.  Like a natural clock, the flowers bloom with the sun; opening wide a mid-day and closing in the cool of the evening and morning.  All too soon the petals fall but not before each leaf begins to unfurl from around the stem opening into a large, scalloped heart of blue-green.  The foliage stays attractive until mid-summer.

 Happy early spring gardening!  We earned it…..

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Urban Farming Lives!

It has been so beautiful these last few days; I am convinced it is truly spring.  Yesterday I spent time in the yard of a lovely couple and their small children.  They had dug up the entire side yard and were on the way towards becoming part of the new generation of urban farmers here in London.  What a treat it was.

 Their corner lot is wide, facing south and west, a great exposure for their venture.  They created two huge beds in shapes that were meaningful to them, adding a layer of private meaning to a public venture.  They filled the beds with compost, and are off to a good start.  At least one of their families has a gardening background so they are well supported and mentored in this venture. 

 Last year they invested in a home orchard of pears and plums, apples, and sour cherries, to name a few. (I met them through the pruning workshop Becky and I held a few weeks back and was gratified to see that they had already used the information they learned then.  They had planted their trees well, and moved a couple as they began to understand  about laying out their gardens.  They transplanted perennials inherited from the previous owner to one section of the yard leaving the most advantageous spots for edibles, medicinals and other useful plants.  Although they are committed to an edible landscape, they added a few new perennials that had caught their eye.

 It was lovely and inspiring.  Ah yes, this CAN be done in the city.  We talked about their planting strategies within the large beds so they can easily tend the plants without walking on the soil and compacting it.  Would they stick to row crops during these first few years, or move into small areas of like-plants mixed together?  We discussed the layout for a *Three Sister’s Garden*, a method of companion planting based on the indigenous combination of corn, beans, and squash, in which each of the plants helps and supports the others.  We tried out a method for cleaning up the perennials and cleared a common assumption that just because perennials come up yearly they need no care.  We even began looking at the yard from the point of view of how it works energetically so that the nurturing they create within their household and gardens is cycled back through the yard AND shines out into the neighbourhood.

 Feeling fed by spending time with these young people and their beginning of a true urban farm-garden, I returned home to continue cleaning out last year’s debris, welcoming back perennials and bud-swelling shrubs, rounding up the forget-me-nots, and revelling in the abundant life force bursting forth from the earth.

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Waiting on the soil…..

 

As the snow clears I find myself chomping at the bit to get out into the garden.  About a week ago we started our first seeds under lights* in the basement.  We have been rewarded with tiny cabbage and broccoli, brussel sprouts, and leeks and onions as well as a smattering of annual flowers.  I probably started the zinnias and marigolds too early, but that’s life!  A couple of shoots from a new dahlia popped through the soil yesterday and I could hardly be more excited.

 Until this afternoon when I went out to the yard, too restless with spring fever to stay indoors and began prowling around the garden.  We’ve had snowdrops since the last snow melt.  Now they are joined by early crocus, scilla, and buds on the earliest Dutch iris!  I greeted the first shoots of delphinium, found hundreds of tiny, self-sown larkspur, the coreopsis and coral bells.  I took stock of the roses and noticed the swelling lilac buds.  I found the buds and first flowers on the hellebores (Lenten Rose).  I rejoiced to notice that an entire border of dwarf snapdragons has returned along with a few tiny sweet alyssums. 

I found a few tiny living nubbins from last year’s final planting of lettuce and spinach. They were still alive.  Perhaps they will start growing again.  The Red bore kale is starting its third season with a few leaves nearly ready to harvest, yum yum!  Early garlic shoots are poking through the mulch. And the parsley is sending up new stems.

Finally I couldn’t stand it any longer and, kneeling down, grabbed a handful of soil.  I squeezed it tight.  When I opened my hand, it seemed to crumble apart.  My heart was pounding as I repeated the experiment.  Success!  The soil in this bed is nearly ready to work.  When the soil is ready to work, it is called friable.

Tomorrow, on the New Moon, I hope to go out and plant our earliest lettuces, spinach, arugula, and pok choy.  I may try a first planting of sugar snap peas.  Maybe carrots!

In my sandy soil, spring comes early.  If your soil is heavier, wait until it passes the squeeze test.  Take a handful of soil and squeeze it into a fist.  Open your hand and see if the soil crumbles apart.  If it does, it’s ready!  If it holds the shape of your fist, it’s still too wet to work.  Working wet soil, like walking on it, compacts it, first turning it muddy.  Then it bakes hard.  It may be challenging, but the wait is worth it.

 *To start seeds under lights, use a light potting soil mixed 1/3 to ½ with compost.  This year we filled small pots and planted several seeds in each, covering the seeds over with a bit of soil.  Then we waited.  We started with cold-weather plants, the broccoli family (Brassicae) germinated within a couple of days.  The rest took a few days longer. 

 Once the plants germinate and you see tiny green shoots, turn on the lights.  We keep the lights on a timer so they shine for 16 hours daily.  We suspend them from light-weight chains hanging from the ceiling.  Using chains makes it easy to adjust the height of the lights as the plants grow.  Keep the lights about 2-3 inches above the plants, or less!

 We try to start seeds indoors 4-6 weeks before planting them outside.  But once they get three or four sets of *true* leaves, we begin to harden them off by putting them outside in a sheltered spot during the day, and bringing them back inside at night.  Hardening plants makes them strong and able to withstand wind and weather.  The closer they get to planting, the longer we leave them outside.

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Early Spring Pruning is a Gift, Indoors and Out!

The first apple blossom popped open on the kitchen table today.  It is on a bough pruned off of a beautiful, mature apple tree at The Circle Women’s Centre two-and-a-half weeks ago.  It holds centre stage in out hearts as well as our kitchen.

 As winter loosens is grip, I’ve turned to my favourite early spring chore, pruning fruit trees.  I have had several fabulous opportunities to prune this season: a gorgeous mini-orchard of a long-unpruned apple, pear, crab apple and cherry on an open hillside overlooking the city; a venerable apple tree rumoured to have been planted between the world wars; and the young trees in our own yard.  Three very different situations with such different needs! 

 The gorgeous spreading trees surrounded by grass and sun, needed simplifying.  Their crowns were so densely branched that the centre of the trees were fully shaded.  Fruit trees require sun.  So far we cut back quite a lot, some old growth and some young suckers.  We still have the pear tree to go.

 The venerable apple had grown too close to a cedar that had been recently cut down.  But as a result, it had grown at a daring angle, reaching for sunlight.  It had several large dead and dying branches asking to be cut.  Others had twisted and tangled and one made a U-turn!.  

 The young trees were easy, they just needed their canopies opened and they needed to be trimmed to fit their in-town yard. 

 The principles of pruning fruit trees are few and simple:

* cut the suckers (stems coming from ground level or below the graft);

* cut the water sprouts (branches sticking straight up, sometimes in clusters at the site of an old cut);

* cut branches that are crossing and could rub against each other, damaging their bark;

* cut branches that are growing into the middle of the tree, creating shade where the tree wants sun.

 Go ahead and prune, the trees love it!  It truly lightens their load.  And remember to put the cut branches in a vase of water on the table to watch spring come early to your kitchen, too!

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