A paper for those of us a little older…
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The Optimistic Gardener By Louise Kondakow

Luoise_K (2)

June 2106

Gardening Through the Ages
Given the choice to spend my time indoors or outdoors, I would choose the great outdoors every time. Ever since I was “knee high to a grasshopper”, I loved to wander through the woods, looking for wild flowers, birds’ nests and of course, the perfect place to build a fort. I also loved to follow Mum around her gardens while she planted, watered and dead-headed in the annual and perennial gardens, and harvested all the wonderful fresh produce in the vegetable gardens. As far back as I can remember, gardening played a prominent role in my growing up, and I thought it appropriate in June, being Seniors Month, to interview my favourite senior and ask her where my love of gardening may have come from.
Louise: Where do you think your love of gardening came from?
Mum: My grandfather was a master gardener, and the head gardener for several estates in the Enfield area, just north of London. He was responsible for all the old roses, and for the more technical aspects of the gardens such as design and pruning. When we would all get together for dinner on Sundays, all my Dad and Grandad would talk about was gardening. I would sit at Grandad’s knee and listen to their conversation, quite fascinated by all the plant names and how to care for them. Your Grandad had a saying for gardening success that I always remember when I’m planting – “Plant ‘em high, they’ll never die, Plant ‘em low, they’ll never grow”. When I started growing my own gardens, I came to realize this to mean that you should never transplant plants too low as this will hinder their growth. My Dad also had an allotment where he grew all kinds of small fruits; blackberries, raspberries, gooseberries and currents. He also grew the most wonderful gladiolas and dahlias especially for my mother, your grandmother. On Sunday mornings, he would put me on the small back seat of his bike (I was about 3 or 4 years old) and we would head off to the allotment where we would pick, and of course eat, the fruits, and cut big bunches of flowers to bring home to Mum. I think that’s where my love of gardening started.
Louise: Did you also have a garden at home?
Mum: Oh yes, we always had a large garden in the backyard, even during the war years. This is where we grew all sorts of vegetables; lettuces, cabbage, kale, spinach, carrots, onions, potatoes and runner beans. When food was rationed, we were never without a good supply of vegetables. Our favourite lettuces for salads were romaine and butter crunch, which were always dressed with cider vinegar. We never had store-bought salad dressing, as mother thought it was “highly suspicious”, referring to its content. It was my job in the spring to go down to the seed store, with my list from my Dad, and buy the vegetable seeds. They were sold by weight, so I would ask for a quarter ounce of this and a half ounce of that. Our onion seeds however, were always saved from the largest onions from the year before. Dad would put a bag over the seed heads, collect the seeds and put them away for the following year. As England has a very long growing season, we would often sow two crops of the leafy vegetables, one in spring and the other in fall. Cabbages, carrots and onions could be left in the ground right up to Christmas, but we also had a huge root cellar as well. Toward the end of the war, when food was in very short supply, vegetables from our garden, and the odd rabbit caught by your Uncle George, were what kept all of us going.
Louise: What did you think of gardening in Canada?
Mum: One of the first things I did once your father and I were settled in our own home was to start a large garden in the back yard. Now, as you know, your father was not much of a gardener, but he was always willing with a shovel and wheelbarrow, so between us, we got a lot of gardening accomplished. The climate in Canada is certainly not as friendly to gardeners as that in England, but with a little adjustment, I was able to grow enough vegetables for our family and your Aunt, Uncle, and cousins as well. Unfortunately no one else in your father’s family was terribly interested in gardening, and I think they thought I was a bit mad to be digging up the backyard and planting all these veggies. However, they certainly appreciated the baskets of beans, peas, potatoes and carrots that Dad would bring down to the lake every weekend during the summer.
Louise: Why do you love gardening?
Mum: Gardening has always been a part of my life; I find it almost magical to plant a seed and watching it grow. To see a seed as small as a grain of sand become an enormous pine tree or a beautiful flower is quite amazing. One of the best parts of gardening for me is to harvest all the wonderful fruits and vegetables that result from an enjoyable days work. In fact, I can’t imagine one day without spending some time in my garden.
There is something very satisfying about gardening, both for the body and for the soul. Mum will celebrate her ninetieth birthday this June, and still works in her garden every day. It may not be the fountain of youth, but gardening certainly keeps you young at heart. If you haven’t already, I hope you find your love of gardening. When you do, pass it on to those you love…they will be forever grateful! Wishing everyone a wonderful summer in the garden, I remain…The Optimistic Gardener!

May 2016

Two Bees…or Not Two Bees

When I was young, we had two enormous crabapple trees at our house in Winnipeg. Every fall we would pick the apples and Mum would make crabapple jelly, which is our family’s favourite. The first summer that Mick and I were in our newly built home, my Mum and Dad bought us a crabapple tree. Our tree, now over thirty feet high, is always covered with fragrant white and pink flowers in the spring, and usually alive with bees eager to collect the nectar and pollen. Of late however, the lack of bees visiting our tree is troubling, and is evidence of the warnings in the news that bee populations are declining. With many other environmental causes for concern frequently taking the spotlight, the plight of the honeybee and its close cousins is often overlooked. However, the part that bees and other pollinators play in food productivity is paramount; in fact, one third of all the food we eat depends on pollinators. The importance of bees and other pollinators to our economy, and our well-being, cannot be understated, or overlooked.
When I think of bees, I automatically think of honey, and of course the honeybee. The honeybee however, is just one of many types of bees found in Canada, and is not actually native to this country. Originally brought here by European settlers for honey production, the honeybee quickly became an essential part of our agricultural industry, both as a pollinator, and for honey production. Although the honeybee is probably the most familiar bee, our native bees are incredibly important. Many native bees, such as the bumblebee or the mason bee, are actually more effective and efficient pollinators than the honeybee. Some native bee species emerge earlier in the year than honeybees, making them important pollinators of early spring blossoms. The majority of our native bees are solitary. This means that each female prepares her own nest, supplies it with food (nectar and pollen) for her offspring, lays her eggs, and provides little further care. Although solitary bees nest separately, some may build their nests in groups, possibly to take advantage of a good nesting site. Because they do not have a large nest or colony to defend, solitary bees tend to be much less aggressive, stinging only if trapped, slapped, or handled. Bumblebees are the most social of our native bees. They form a temporary colony that breaks up with the onset of winter. Some bumblebee species can be a bit aggressive in defending their nest if disturbed. Away from the nest, however, like any bee, they are unlikely to sting unless threatened.
The honeybee is the epitome of social insects. With a queen bee as a matriarch, the perennial colony is made up of drones and worker bees. Drones are fertile males whose sole job is to mate with the queen bees. They cannot sting, and die after mating. Worker bees are sterile females, and make up about 99% of the colony’s population. They do all the work for the hive – tending to the queen, feeding the larvae, cleaning and guarding the hive, collecting food and building the honeycomb (sound familiar, ladies!). The life of a worker bee is about 45 days. Worker bees can sting, but if they do sting, they die, generally making honeybees quite gentle as they do not want to die any more than we want to be stung. Queen bees lay up to 1500 eggs a day during spring and summer, and can live from 4 to 7 years. When a new queen is to be chosen, the worker bees chose a healthy larva and feed it a super nutritious food called royal jelly. This turns an ordinary larva into a queen. Honey is made by the bees breaking down the complex sucrose in plant nectar into glucose and fructose. This syrup is then deposited into the honeycomb, fanned by the bees to remove moisture and thicken the honey, and then capped with beeswax. It has been estimated that to produce one quart of honey, bees have to travel 48,000 miles.
As gardeners, there are several things we can do to help battle the pollinator population decline. Try to grow your garden as organically as possible. This means using little or preferably no pesticides on your plants. The pollution from pesticides is harmful to all pollinators, not just bees, and the stress put on them from this pollution can make them more susceptible to disease. Plant a bee-friendly garden, and include plants that bloom early in spring and late into the fall.
• Crocus, hyacinth, borage, calendula, and lilac provide enticing spring blooms.
• Bees feast on bee balm, cosmos, echinacea, snapdragons foxglove, and hosta in the summer.
• For fall, zinnias, sedum, asters, sunflowers and black-eyed susans are late bloomers.
Provide bees with a fresh water source – a sloping bird bath, pond or fountain will supply a much needed drink on a hot day. If you have untended areas in your garden, plant native wild flowers. These are a wonderful source of food for pollinators and are a beautiful way to bring colour to your “wild spaces”.
National Honeybee Day is May 29th. This year plan to welcome as many bees and pollinators as possible to your garden, and help fight the decline of these incredibly important members of our natural society. Off to plant wild flowers in my “back 40”, with a spoon of local honey as my reward, I remain…The Optimistic Gardener!

April 2016

Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign!
I close my eyes and take a deep breath. The air, rich with the smell of fresh potting soil and new plants that fills my lungs, is both calming and invigorating. Calming because I know spring is on the way, and invigorating…because I know spring is on the way! This season of rebirth and renewal is a reward for all of us who have persevered through the winter, although this past winter would not be considered harsh by any means. Winter is, however, a somewhat monochromatic season, and after several months of white and grey, I long for the freshness of green leaves, the richness of black earth, and of course the kaleidoscope of colours that is the spring garden. Often, the anticipation of spring is almost as wonderful as the season itself; there are signs everywhere, you just have to look and listen.
I grew up in Winnipeg, and most of Winnipeg houses had a back lane. When I was young, the first sign of spring was the appearance of an armada of home-made wooden boats, sailing on the melting snow rivers that flowed down the back lanes. Every child had a boat – some were elaborate, made by a proud father who watched from the driveway as the boat was launched for the first time, and some were simple, as simple as a block of wood with a stick for a mast and a piece of cloth for a sail. But all boats were equal in their purpose – to ride the rivers of spring down to the storm drain, then be picked up by the young owners and brought back to begin the voyage over again. This process would take place for hours on weekend afternoons until all the snow had melted and the lanes were dry. One spring, when I was nine, Dad surprised me with a new boat that he had been secretly working on all winter. It was a model of the Shawondasee, a boat he and my uncle had built, complete with seats, floor boards and a windshield. It was stained and varnished, with a bright red bottom, and it handled the river beautifully. I remembered my “boating days” one afternoon as I was basking in the sun on our deck, and had to smile at how much fun we had with such simple pleasures.
I love to listen for the signs of spring. On warm days, I sit out on the deck, close my eyes and am amazed at how you can hear the earth waking up. It’s remarkable the variety of sounds that are created by the stirring of the world around us. On a particularly lovely day in March, just before the 37 cm of snow the following Wednesday (Mother Nature has a wonderful sense of irony), I sat out on our deck with a cup of Earl Grey and listened for spring. The sun was surprisingly hot and was doing an excellent job of melting the snow piled up on our bedroom balcony. The drips were falling on our patio table, and a collection of pots that missed our fall clean-up, creating a spring symphony for “pots and table”. The tune was quite melodic, and quickly lulled me into a very peaceful, meditative state. Before long, the Chickadees and Red Polls feasting at our bird feeder chimed in and I had a chorus to accompany the percussion section of my orchestra. The other amazing thing I have found about listening for spring is that you can actually hear snow melt. If the day is warm and very quiet with no wind, as snow melts, you can hear it making a tinkling sound, almost like tiny bits of glass breaking. This tiny sound is full of hope and promise that soon everything will be green again.
In next to no time, I shall no longer have to look and listen for the signs of spring as it shall be here. To bridge that gap, I have “planted” a small garden in my living room – deep purple hyacinth pots, daffodil pots and cut pussy willows are blooming on my coffee table. This will carry me through to the time when I can get back into my own garden and see spring arrive up close. As always, I have big plans for the garden this year, but the first thing I will do is look, listen and breath in spring in all its glory! The sun has moved around to the back deck – today’s program is “Opus Number One in the Key of Spring” and I wouldn’t miss it for the world! Off to make a “cuppa” and get a good seat, I remain…”The Optimistic Gardener”!

Feb. 2016

Something in the Air…
When it comes to growing mediums, soil is usually the first thing that comes to mind. Then hydroponics came on the scene, using water flowing past plant roots to bring nutrients to them. Similar, but with a twist, we were introduced to aquaponics which pairs plants up with water and fish as a symbiotic relationship. However, there is a new kid on the block that has been making the news lately. Aeroponics, growing plants in air that is misted with water containing nutrients, is becoming a popular method for greenhouses and the home owner to produce fresh vegetables year round. As the cost of fresh produce climbs, having ways of growing your own vegetables in all our seasons (yes, including this one) is becoming very important.
Aeroponics has been around since the 1940’s but has recently started to gain popularity because of its speed, lower cost and space requirements, and uniqueness. When compared to hydroponics, aeroponics offers considerably more control over the plants root system, because the roots do not need to be immersed in any liquid. This makes your aeroponic garden quite mobile, and easily accommodated within small spaces. Aeroponics uses a small internal microjet spray that sprays the roots with a fine, high pressure mist containing nutrient rich solutions. Because the roots are exposed to more oxygen, the plant tends to grow faster. It is also easier to administer all sorts of nutrients to the plant, via the root system.
In a typical aeroponic system, plants are usually suspended on top of a reservoir, within a tightly sealed container. A pump and sprinkler system creates vapors out of a solution rich in nutrients, and sprays the result in the reservoir, covering the dangling plant roots. Plants are inserted into the platform top holes and supported with collars. Aeroponics is often confused with hydroponics, since the two methods are similar and interchangeable, but in aeroponics the roots have no contact with any media, whereas in hydroponics, they do. It is often thought that aeroponically grown plants would be less sturdy than plants grown in soil, but this is not the case, as they are in fact even better fed than most of their soil counterparts. The secret of aeroponics lies in the increased oxygen available to the roots due to the lack of root zone media, and increased aeration of the liquid nutrient solution delivered to the roots. This extra oxygen has a huge impact on plant growth and harvest yields. One of the other great benefits to aeroponics is its relatively disease-free environment. As there is no soil medium which could carry pathogens and spread them to other plants, this system allows for higher density planting. In fact, research at the Cornell University Cooperative Extension has found that aeroponics is the most efficient means of growing leafy greens. Greens can become contaminated with soil pathogens and bacteria like e.coli, but aeroponics greatly reduces these risks. Other important benefits to aeroponics include a 98% reduction in water usage, a 60% reduction in fertilizer usage, and an almost 100% reduction in pesticide usage as compared to traditional growing methods.
So what can you grow using aeroponics…apparently just about anything! Vegetable crops include beans, peas, tomatoes, strawberries, squash, cucumbers and lettuce. Herbs include basil , mint, oregano, parsley and rosemary, and yes, you can even grow flowers including marigolds, petunias and sunflowers. Plants can be started from cuttings and from seeds. To make your own aeroponic garden requires just a handful of items: a 5 gallon plastic bucket with a top (preferably dark coloured to keep light away from the nutrient medium), dense foam, an ultrasonic fogger with a float, pH meter, nutrients, and 2 gallons of water. There is some basic knowledge required, but all in all it is a pretty slick way to have a source of fresh veggies year round at your fingertips.
As the world’s population grows and arable land becomes scarcer, the ability to grow food in confined spaces becomes so much more important. The environmental impact of food production is also a huge consideration, with water and fertilizer usage and transportation required to get this food to the consumer. If we all started to grow food at home, we would drastically reduce our impact on the earth. After all…it is where we all live. With starting an aeroponic garden at the top of my bucket list (just a little pun intended),
I remain…The Optimistic Gardener!

Jan. 2016

Fungus Among Us
A mushroom walks into a bar and sits down to order a drink. The bartender comes by and says “I’m sorry but we don’t serve your kind here”. The mushroom sits back and says “Why not…I’m a real fun guy!” I apologize for that groaner but in reality fungi, and especially particular types of fungi, are incredibly important when it comes to the relationship that plants have with the surrounding soil. The particular fungus I am speaking of is the beneficial root fungus called mycorrhiza. “Mycor” – “rhiza” is from the Greek and literally means “fungus-roots”. The mycorrhiza fungus forms a symbiotic relationship with plants by colonizing their roots deep into the soil and actually becomes extensions of the root filaments, making the plant more effective at absorbing water and nutrients. The mycorrhiza also benefits from this relationship in that it receives direct access to carbohydrates such as sucrose and glucose. More than 90 percent of plant species in natural areas form this symbiotic relationship with mycorrhiza.
Mycorrhizal fungi increase the surface absorbing area of plants roots from 100 to 1000 times, resulting in a greatly improved ability of the plant to access soil resources. In less than a thimble full of soil you can find several miles of fungal filaments. In addition to increasing root surface area, mycorrhizae release powerful enzymes into the soil that dissolve hard to capture nutrients such as phosphorous, organic nitrogen, iron and other soil nutrients that are tightly bound within the soil. Of these, phosphorous is possibly the most important as it is responsible for root growth resulting in a stronger, larger root mass. This increased root mass helps the plant to withstand adverse conditions including long dry summers and cold winters. Mycorrhiza is also important to plants living in nutrient poor soils, enabling them to take as much from the soil as possible.
There are two types of mycorrhizea; ectomycorrhizea and endomycorrhizae. The hyphae or filament structures of ectomycorrhizae do not penetrate the root cells whereas the hyphae of endomycorrhizae penetrate the root cell walls. Endomycorrhizae associate themselves with about 80 percent of plants including deciduous trees and herbaceous plants. Ectomycorrhizae associate with only about 5 to 7 percent of plants, mostly evergreens.
Soil that has not been disturbed is full of beneficial organisms including mycorrhizal fungi. However common practices such as site preparation, tillage, topsoil removal, compaction and fumigation can destroy the mycorrhizae in the soil. Studies have shown that endomycorrhizae are very slow to recolonize an area unless there is access to natural spores to repopulate the affected area. The reintroduction of mycorrhizal fungi to areas where it has been lost has shown to dramatically improve plant performance, using less water and fertilizer, resulting in a reduced cost.
Mycorrhizal fungus is available commercially, usually in a freeze dried form. Studies have shown that the viability of freeze dried mycorrhiza when reconstituted is very good, making this an excellent source of this vital soil fungus.
An important area of study using mycorrhizal fungus is that of the reclamation of soil contaminated by either chemicals or radiation. Many plants are known for their ability to remove toxins from the soil, and the introduction of the appropriate mycorrhizae for that plant species has shown to significantly increase that plants capacity for toxin removal.
There have also been several studies that looked at the possible communication between plants using mycorrhizae as the conduit, forming an enormous underground root network. One such network was found in a Canadian forest where each tree was connected to dozens of others over a distance of 30 metres. Could mycorrhizae be the basis of the earth’s internet, functioning as a complex communication highway between plants…it would be interesting to know what they are saying about us!
I always look forward to the beginning of a new year…new opportunities, new possibilities, and of course a chance to once again attack all those jobs on that long list left over from “last year”. On my list for 2016 – repot my houseplants, redo the garden on the south side of the pond, and as always, simplify, simplify, simplify. However I know that as soon as the perennials appear on the tables at the garden centre, simplify goes right out the window! I will also do my best to disturb the earth as little as possible when planting so as not to upset the mycorrhiza community in my garden (I wouldn’t want them speaking badly of me!) As I write this article, the news of terrible flooding in England and a horrendous winter storm spreading across eastern Canada reminds us yet again of how quickly things can change. We must all resolve to use less, recycle more and tread gently on this small planet we call home. Happy New Year from Vancouver Island (temporarily), and as always I remain…The Optimistic Gardener!
Dec. 2015

I’m Dreaming of a Green Christmas

Waking up to a blanket of sparkling white snow on Christmas morning would be breathtakingly beautiful, but not for me. I am not a white Christmas kind of girl (although White Christmas is my favourite holiday season movie). A green Christmas is what I dream about, and not just outside but inside as well. I love using fresh greenery to decorate for the holidays; cedar, holly, pine boughs, juniper and boxwood make wonderful fresh displays and fill the house with beautiful scent. There is however, another way to have a green Christmas, and that is to consider the environment. Here are a few ideas to help decrease our impact on the earth during the holidays.
Putting up Christmas lights for the holidays brings a bit of sparkle into our lives as the days get shorter. Be earth-friendly and use LED lights instead of the traditional larger bulbs. LED lights can use up to 95% less energy than traditional bulbs, which also results in a substantial saving on your electric bill. Put your outdoor lights on a timer if they are not on a switch, making sure all lights go off when everyone goes to bed. Solar-powered Christmas lights are also available and are the greenest of holiday lighting. Many of our indoor holiday decorations run on batteries. Using rechargeable batteries decreases the number that end up in the landfill.
The debate over artificial or live Christmas trees can be a difficult one and needs to be resolved according to your own conscience. While there is merit in purchasing an artificial tree because it can be reused, the downside is that it has a limited lifespan, needs to be replaced when it wears out, and often is made from non-renewable resources. Live trees, on the other hand, are a renewable resource grown on tree farms, and are replanted regularly. They contribute to air quality while growing, and almost ninety percent are recycled into mulch. Live trees are usually locally grown and sold, saving both transportation costs and added air pollution. Live trees also bring the most wonderful scent into your home. If you cannot do it yourself, be sure to compost your tree after Christmas by taking it to a recycling depot for chipping, or put it out for collection where possible.
Recycle wrapping paper, Christmas cards and gift bags. I keep old Christmas cards for two reasons – the first is to reminisce over last year’s family and friends updates, and the second is to make gift tags out of them. Opening gifts with a bit of care will help preserve the wrapping paper for next year, and better yet, use gifts to wrap gifts – tea towels and pillow cases make great gift wrap and can be part of the gift as well. If you sew, make gift bags out of decorative material which can later be used for shoe bags when traveling. Reusable shopping bags make great gift wrappers and are much appreciated by the recipients. Sealer jars also make a wonderful reusable gift container.
Connect with nature over the holidays by “decorating” a tree for the birds. Bird feeders, seed bells and suet cakes attract birds to your yard, give hours of entertainment during the winter months and provide an important food source. Encourage earth-minded activities by giving the gift of gardening. A trowel, pruning shears, gardening gloves and a reference book on gardening would be a great start for someone considering this wonderful hobby. And put it all in a bucket – reusable wrapping at its best!
One man’s junk is another man’s treasure (or woman’s for that matter). Don’t throw away anything that could be donated to local charity shops, and while you are there, be sure to check out the treasures donated by others…you never know what you might find.
The holidays are a time of celebrating family, friends and the joy and happiness that being together brings. It is also a time to reflect on our place on the earth and the daily impact we have on it. Take time for yourself and your family to enjoy activities together. Go for a hike, start a recycling project, make Christmas ornaments, bake cookies. A very important tradition in our family is the making of fruit cake, with everyone present having a “stir and a wish”, and giving a stir and a wish for those in absentia. My wish for you this year is for the merriest Christmas ever, filled with the joy of family, health and happiness…and that everyone gives a special gift to the earth by going green! Off to turn last year’s Christmas cards into this year’s gift tags, I remain…The Optimistic Gardener!

Nov. 2015

An Extraordinary Ordinary Life
Dad was not a gardener. He was a wonderful carpenter, electrician, plumber, badminton and tennis player, sailor, downhill skier, and the best skipping rope turner on our block…but he was not a gardener. This is not to say that he didn’t have an appreciation for beautiful gardens for he loved flowers, especially red geraniums and bright yellow marigolds, but he would rather not be involved in the planting and maintenance of them. If asked, Dad would willingly dig holes and screen compost which was always a great help. He just had no interest in the planting and weeding aspect of gardening, nor did he want to spend any time discussing varieties of tulips, the merits of perennials versus annuals, and of course, which plants deer will or will not eat.
Dad’s encounters with gardening were summed up in two stories told by Mum on occasion when the family conversation would gravitate toward the topic. The first story involved Dad, a lawnmower, and a large stand of hollyhocks which Mum had been pampering all spring. Mum happened to come into the city mid-summer from camp to find all the hollyhocks had mysteriously disappeared. Upon questioning Dad, she discovered that he thought they were large weeds and had mowed them down the week before. The second story took place at the lake, and actually spanned a three year period. Mum always wanted to have a clematis vine covering the lower deck skirting boards in front of our camp. So for three years in a row, Mum planted a clematis in the spring only to find it had died by mid-summer. This was a great puzzle to Mum, who has quite a green thumb and was beginning to doubt her ability as a gardener. The puzzle was solved one morning however when Mum found Dad spraying the deck with preservative, which unlike its name, does not preserve everything. The poor clematis didn’t stand a chance. It was then Mum realized that trying to indoctrinate Dad in the whys and wherefores of gardening was a losing battle, and she conceded defeat.
Although Dad was not a gardener, he was an amazing builder of boats, both large and small. He built his first boat shortly after Mum & Dad got married. With the help of my uncle, they worked all winter constructing an inboard wooden boat in my Grandparent’s basement. After taking the necessary doors and door frames off to get the boat out of the basement (one cannot calculate everything), they dropped in the inboard engine and trailered the Shawondasee (meaning “South Wind”) to Lake of the Woods where it spent many summers pulling water skiers and taking us on boat trips down the lake. The second boat Dad built was Michael’s speed boat “The Squirt”. My cousin David built one for his son Robert at the same time, and the boys had many wonderful summers riding the waves and exploring the islands. As Dad got older, he moved to model boats where his talents really shone. From Shepherds and Greavettes to tug boats and sailboats, Dad made over 20 models, each one taking about a year to complete. Dad made special boats for all of us…mine are sailboats…The Bluenose and Captain Cook’s The Endeavour.
This past September, at the age of ninety-five and a half, Dad passed away. It was peaceful and quick…just the way he wanted to go. He did go somewhat reluctantly, mostly because he said he’d had such a wonderful life, he didn’t want it to end. There was nothing terribly extraordinary about his life except that it was long and very happy. He celebrated 70 years of marriage in the spring to Mum, his bride, saw his granddaughter married this summer, did everything he wanted to do, and was healthy right up until his passing. He loved his family deeply, and we all loved him back. Maybe that was extraordinary enough.
One of my fondest childhood memories of Dad is of him turning rope for us while we skipped. He would turn rope for hours. In fact, we had a name for it…he was a ”never-ender”. He taught most of the kids on our block how to skip. I can still hear him calling out “Now…now” when it was time to jump in. Double Dutch was the trickiest to learn, but Dad had the patience of Job when it came to skipping. Often, just before we all had to go home for the evening, we would give Dad a turn at skipping and Mum would join in. They would do funny steps and we’d all laugh. Thanks Dad, for so many great years. We’ll turn the rope now for a while…its your turn to skip. Thinking of Dad, and smiling, I remain…The Optimistic Gardner.

Oct. 2015

Drift Away

I’ll admit it…I’m a driftwood junkie. I love driftwood – the shape, colour, and texture of driftwood. I love that every piece has an amazing story to tell. It may have travelled the ocean for miles and miles before being washed up on a beach or rocky cove. Gnarled and twisted roots, long smooth swipes of trunks, and hundreds of pieces like giant’s toothpicks lie waiting for my perusal and approval. Beach combing is one of my favourite pastimes. I always come home with my pockets full of shells and rocks, and of course a trunk full of driftwood.
Driftwood makes a wonderful addition to the garden. The interesting shapes and colours can enhance a planting- use driftwood as a backdrop or incorporate it right into the planting itself, putting plants in and around the different shapes of the piece. Choosing a very unusual piece of driftwood for your garden will create a striking focal point for that area. This can be made even more dramatic by planting annuals or perennials with colourful foliage and flowers. If you like to light your garden at night, consider using driftwood shapes to hold your solar garden lighting. Not only will you have a very attractive holder, but the light from the lamp will highlight your driftwood accent at night.
Smaller driftwood pieces can be used for making great garden accents as well. Choose interesting shapes of similar sizes, drill holes through the middle of them, string them together with nautical looking rope, and you have a very unique driftwood mobile. Add a couple of pieces of antique silver cutlery, sea glass or broken ceramics and you have a wind chime. If the driftwood was collected from your favourite beach or vacation spot, you also have a wonderful souvenir. Be sure to put a date on the bottom of one of the pieces to remind you of when you collected them.
Hollow pieces of driftwood make wonderful planters. They look especially striking planted up with small rock garden plants – succulents, sedums and ground covers. Look for driftwood logs with hollow areas, roots with crevasses or any piece with a decent size hole in it. These can be filled with potting soil and planted up with your favourite small plants. Keep in mind that because the driftwood is above ground, these plants may not survive our winter – you may want to plant them in your garden in the fall and create a new planter in the spring.
There are many other accents you can make from driftwood for your garden. If you have access to a good supply, you can use driftwood for fencing and trellises. Strong pieces make unique hanging basket holders, and wonderful stands for birdhouse so and feeders.
Driftwood even played a part in Meg and Steve’s wedding this summer – we collected small pieces from several beaches near Victoria and used them as place card holders on the tables. All our guests loved them and took them home as a memento. I collected up the pieces from our family tables and will make a wind chime for the happy couple to remind them of their fabulous day.
I have special pieces of driftwood in almost every room of our house, and several bags of driftwood waiting to become part of some new creation. Each one has a story of when and where it was collected, and all of them hold very special memories for me. Each piece has a purpose and a destiny. The next time you have a chance to do some beach combing, pick up a bit of driftwood…you might be surprised at the stories it has to tell! Heading to the beach to look for more treasure, I remain…The Optimistic Gardener!

September 2015

A Summer of Celebrations
I think I am safe in saying that almost everyone celebrates in the arrival of summer. Long days and warm nights provide lots of time for biking, hiking and gardening. Because I was able to spend the summers of my youth at our cottage on Lake of the Woods, and these were such wonderful summers, I tend to measure my years in summers, which can be bittersweet, depending on the summer. This summer has been one of the sweetest summers of all, as it was one of great celebration!
June 21st, the longest day. It was almost midnight before the last pale pink rays of dusk finally disappeared. It’s the same every year and yet I am always amazed at the amount of daylight we receive as we approach summer. It’s a blessing and curse at the same time;we get to enjoy such long days and yet I am up most nights until well past my bed time, usually puttering in the garden. I think I am trying to absorb and store as much sunshine as I can before winter. I can then draw on it when days are particularly cold and dark, helping me to remember the soft warm days of summer.
July 1st, Canada Day and my personal first day of summer. In my youth, the first day of July heralded our official arrival at the cottage for summer holidays and the beginning of two months of swimming, sailing and boating. We caught up with our “summer friends” and days seemed to last an eternity. Life was good. Life is still good. The garden is spectacular this year – must be all the rain. My delphiniums have multiplied profusely and stand like enormous blue spires reaching for the sky. Daylilies and globe flowers have more blooms than ever and are promising to be spectacular.
July 21st, and one month to Megan and Steve’s wedding. The excitement is building, but Meg is extremely organized and all plans are in place and on track for the big day. I am heading to Ottawa for a “girls weekend” with Meg to shop and go over any last minute details. The garden still continues to amaze me with the size and number of blooms on everything. My Persicarias grow ever larger and I have had to move several day lilies in order to accommodate them. They are spectacular, each one looking like a huge creamy white snow storm…quite ironic. My only regret is that I have not planted a vegetable garden this year as we will be away for a month and would miss the harvest.
August 5th, we arrive in Victoria. Despite the lack of rain, the island is still very green and the gardens are beautiful. We make a list of all our tasks to complete for the wedding. The weather is perfect. Meg arrives and we are able to spend the weekend with Di and Dave up at Cowichan, swimming and sipping margaritas on the dock. Life is very good. The bridesmaids all arrive – we definitely know our way to the airport by now.
August 21st…Megan and Steve’s wedding day! The weather could not be more perfect, not a cloud in the sky, a gentle breeze and the temperature just right. Meg and the girls have made their own bouquets – the bridesmaids have pink sweetheart roses and clouds of babies breath, Meg has chosen blue hydrangeas, pink roses and babies breath…they look amazing. Meg is positively radiant in her wedding gown…I have never seen her more happy. Ceremony at the Royal Vic Yacht Club and then off to the Beach House restaurant for the reception and a fabulous night of dancing and revelry. A stellar day!
August 25th…we are down to the two of us! Meg and Steve are off on their honeymoon and the bridesmaids and Michael have all headed home. Now we have time for a bit of R and R. We have some hiking and beach combing planned as well as some garden renovation in Mum’s garden. The weather continues to amaze us, although some rain would be most welcomed. I think we have consumed our weight in blackberries which grow along the roadsides, and provide hikers with a refreshing pick-me-up as they are walking along. I shall definitely not get scurvy while I am here! At the end of the month, our vacation in paradise comes to an end, but I can honestly say that we have celebrated every day, from the first day of summer until our last goodbyes at the airport. But as my brother-in-law Dave would say “the day’s (year’s) not over yet” and fabulous fall is yet to come…another season to celebrate with amazing colour and perfect days for working in the garden.
I have come to realize that every day is a gift to be opened, cherished…and celebrated! This summer for me has been one of wonderful celebrations…and I am looking forward to so many more! Off on our next adventure to Botanical Beach to commune with starfish and sea urchins, I remain, The Optimistic Gardener!

June 2015

A Few of My Favourite Things
If “raindrops on roses, and whiskers on kittens” all of a sudden pops into your head, and you hear Julie Andrews singing to the Trapp family children, then I apologize, although the Sound of Music is one of my favourite movies. I know it’s schmaltzy but the songs are so memorable and perfect for singing while working in the garden (when no one is listening!)
Spring is such a busy time for gardeners. Our relatively short-season zone precludes that we must hasten to clean up last year’s deadfall before the new growth starts to push through it, then amend the soil, fertilize and constantly weed. I welcome being outside, having spent the past months confined to the inside, and it feels good to once again work muscles that have been on a winter vacation. Every day in the garden is a good day, but my favourite time in the garden is in the evening, with the sun low on the horizon and the sky so deep a blue it is almost hypnotic. This is when I take time to “stop and smell the roses” or in my case, the irises. In my garden I have several drifts of old fashioned, dark purple irises, which I inherited from Mum. When freshly opened, I find the scent from these flowers positively intoxicating. I stroll from drift to drift, drinking in the rich perfume and remembering the bouquets of irises that Mum would cut and bring into our house every spring.
Evening in the garden is also the perfect time to hear one of my favourite birds. The Veery is a small woodland thrush that sings mostly at dusk and dawn. Its song has been described as ethereal and reedy, like the sound of descending notes swirling around in a metal tube. I remember hearing the Veery’s song at camp, just as I was drifting off to sleep, and every time I hear it now, it reminds me of summer holidays and endless days of fun at the lake. The Veery arrives to our woods a little later than the other song birds, but when I hear its haunting melody I know that summer is here.
I have a passion for very small plants and very large plants, both of which I have in my garden. At one end of the scale, I have several varieties of sedums and rock garden plants which have to be viewed up close to really appreciate the beauty of their flowers and foliage, and in the case of Dianthus or Pinks, the wonderful scent of cloves. At the other end of the scale I have several stands of Persicaria polymorpha, also known as Giant Fleeceflower, which lives up to its name most admirably. Although late to emerge, by the end of the summer this spectacular plant towers over the garden with its huge creamy white plumes. It is a strong plant and can withstand the summer storms of Northwestern Ontario. In the fall, the plumes turn a tawny pink, and the thick woody stems give birds a place to shelter from winter winds. Be sure to give this perennial giant a lot of room. This year I will be moving some daylilies, which have become crowded out by one particularly large Persicaria, giving all concerned enough space to flourish.
The colour blue is one of my favourites in the garden, although it is not a colour easily found in perennials. There are many shades of purple, from royal to pale mauve, but true blue is a bit scarce. I do have some bright blue Delphiniums that are quite striking as they tower over the yellows, reds and oranges of my daylilies. Baptista or False Indigo can come close to being blue but still has undertones of purple. Brunnera or Siberian Bugloss is a true pale blue much like wild Forget-me-nots. The biennial Forget-me-not is a deep blue and almost glows in the shade where it is most happy.
Just being out in the garden is perhaps my most favourite thing of all. Even after a busy day at work, I can hardly wait to get home, get my “grubbies” on and step into my own private paradise. Tending to my garden is exercise, stress relief and meditation all rolled up in one, and all that fresh air makes for a good night’s sleep. I hope you remember to take time to enjoy your favourite things, even if it’s something as simple as watching a sunset or admiring a flower – the value this brings to your well-being is immeasurable.
This summer I will be adding two very special things to my list of favourites – Mum and Dad’s 70th anniversary, and Megan and Steve’s wedding. The excitement is building as we count down the days and all our plans are falling nicely into place. However, when I need a minute or two to clear my head…you know where you’ll find me! I wish everyone a wonderful summer filled with your favourite things. Off to bury my face in a bouquet of irises, I remain…The Optimistic Gardener!

May 2015
Speed Bumps
Speed bumps. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some we can just sail over without even noticing they are there. For others, we have to come to a complete stop for risk of being temporarily launched into space, which can often be followed by a rather hard landing. Some are well marked, giving us ample warning and time to prepare, and some appear out of nowhere, giving us a scare and reminding us to pay closer attention to the road. Life is full of speed bumps. It’s how we negotiate them that determines the smoothness of our ride.
This April was Dad’s 95th birthday. Myself and a number of family members flew out to Victoria to celebrate this momentous occasion. We treated Dad to dinner at this favourite restaurant and spent the rest of the week enjoying the sights around Victoria. All was well until Dad suffered what would be considered a medium-sized heart attack. This was the speed bump we never saw coming. This was also my first experience with an early morning call for an ambulance and a harried drive to the hospital. Mum and I stayed with Dad while they got him stabilized. As the sun was just starting to come up, the attending physician told Mum and I to go home and get some sleep as Dad was resting nicely. As we were just climbing into bed, the phone rang. It was the hospital asking us to come down right away. We were now teetering on the top of our speed bump, not sure which way we would fall, or how we would land. These are the moments in life that test our mettle. By the time we got back to the hospital, Dad had responded well to his treatment and was out of the woods. He is now recovering nicely, but a traumatic event such as this tends to change one’s perspective on life pretty quickly. We hit our speed bump, were launched, but we did not crash land, and every day is the sweeter for it.
The Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria has a brand new patient care centre, and Dad was lucky enough to receive a room on the eighth floor with an amazing view of the city. Every day, Mum and I spent lunch and dinner with him. On one of my quests to find Dad an ice cold can of ginger ale, I discovered an amazing garden. It is hidden within a circle of buildings just off the main doors and offers a beautifully tranquil spot to rest and recover. After a few days, we were able to take Dad out in a wheelchair to enjoy some fresh air. Because the garden is so protected, the plants are much further ahead than the rest of the city. Hostas were well up and irises, azaleas and rhododendrons were in full bloom. A waterfall spilled gently into a shallow pond, and the sun warmed nearby benches giving us a cozy place to sit, and ease our way down the other side of our speed bump. At the far end of the garden was an amazing tree, the Paulownia Tree. Covered in enormous lavender coloured tubular flowers, it gracefully arched over the pathways, its bouquet clusters just out of reach. It was so spectacular that even Dad (the non-gardener) noticed and commented on its beauty. The upper level of the garden is a series of raised beds featuring a variety of heather and fragrant herbs including rosemary and lavender. When the breeze passed over them, the scent was both calming and invigorating at the same time. Dad looked forward to his daily garden visit, to feel the sun and wind on his face.
Once Dad was settled back at home, I took Mum to our favourite garden, the Horticultural Centre of the Pacific, to give her a chance to also recover from our speed bump. We spent quite a long time just sitting by the small stream in the Japanese Garden, listening to the water gurgle and watching the sun dance off the ripples. The garden was bursting with spring colour and it was good therapy for us both to see the abundance of new life.
It is often said that when the world gives you lemons, make lemonade. I say, make lemonade, lots of it and be sure to save a lemon or two for a gin and tonic, making sure not to spill any over those surprise speed bumps. Better yet, have your lemonade or gin and tonic out in the garden where you will find some of the best medicine Mother Nature can provide. Heading out to my garden, and keeping an eye out for speed bumps, I remain…The Optimistic Gardener!

Lettuce ..Rejoice!
Please excuse my play on words in the title of this article but… I love lettuce. I love everything about lettuce – the colour, the taste, the crunch and the fact that it is so very good for us. A cool, crisp salad made with a variety of lettuces is a perfect summer starter, or top it with some creamy goat cheese, strawberries and blueberries and you have a meal.  A wonderful variety of lettuces is usually available at the grocery store, but it is important to know that not all lettuces are created equal when it comes to nutrition. The rule of thumb is that as the colour of the lettuce leaves get darker, the nutrition value increases. In fact, it’s actually quite surprising how nutritious some lettuces actually are, but first, a short course in lettuce-ology.
Lettuce (Lactuca sativa) belongs to the daisy family, and the genus Lactuca, which refers to the milky substance which comes from its stems when cut. It is a cool season crop and one of the easiest vegetables to grow. Seeds can be planted as soon as the garden can be worked in the spring, with days to maturity being as low as 45 for leaf lettuce. Lettuce prefers a rich, well-drained soil and regular watering. Try to give your lettuce a bit of shade during the day as the hot sun often makes it bolt (go to seed). If you plant a variety of lettuces, you can harvest the outer leaves with the inner leaves continuing to grow, giving you a lovely selection of mixed greens for your daily salad. There are seven different types of lettuce: looseleaf, butterhead, romaine, buttercrunch, Batavian, crisphead and Chinese. Of all these, romaine lettuce is my personal favourite, and just happens to take first place when it comes to nutrient value.
So, just exactly what are the wonderful things that romaine lettuce contains? Hold on to your hats because the list is long and quite amazing! In just 2 cups of raw romaine lettuce, you will find 107% of your daily vitamin K requirements, 45% of vitamin A, 32% of folate, 13% of molybdenum, 8% of fibre and manganese, 7% of potassium, 6% of copper, B1 and biotin, 5% of B2, vitamin C, Omega 3 and iron…and much more. Romaine is extremely low in calories but high in water content, helping to keep us well hydrated as most of us do not drink enough water on a daily basis. The fibre and cellulose content of romaine lettuce improves digestion which leads to long-term weight control. Romaine is also a good source of two important phytochemicals: beta-carotene and lutein. Beta-carotene is a powerful antioxidant, protecting cells in the body from damage caused by free radicals. In fact, its antioxidant properties are thought to help prevent certain cancers and other diseases. Lutein is also an antioxidant that helps preserve our eyesight as we age. Once consumed, lutein makes its way to the eye where it protects the retina and lens from free radical damage. Research shows that people who have high intakes of lutein from foods are less likely to develop cataracts and macular degeneration.
Here are a few other nutritional facts about romaine lettuce that might surprise you:
• Calcium – one head of romaine has about 21% of your daily recommended intake of calcium
• Protein – romaine lettuce is 17% protein, and contains all 9 essential amino acids
• Minerals – the abundance of minerals in romaine help remove toxins from our system and keep our acid/alkaline balance in order. With this balance comes a host of benefits including more energy, clearer thinking, a more restful sleep and youthful skin.
Growing your own romaine is very easy as this powerhouse of a plant is actually quite undemanding when it comes to its care and nurturing. It is perfectly happy growing in a large pot so it is ideal for balcony gardens and back door kitchen gardens. One of my favourite quotes about healthy eating comes from Michael Pollan, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”; having a romaine lettuce salad a day would fall nicely into this regime, and put you on the right track to healthy eating.
As we are now officially in the season of spring, it is time to get serious about garden planning. Always at the top of my list is my back door kitchen garden – a combination of lettuces and herbs which I plant early so I can enjoy sooner. Of course, romaine lettuce will be well represented, and I can’t wait to have the first taste of the crunchy, sweet leaves. Munching on a delicious salad while poring over spring gardening magazines, I romaine (sorry about that one)…The Optimistic Gardener!

Keep Calm…And Wait for Spring (Part 2)

The countdown is on! Spring officially arrives on Friday, March 20th at 6:46pm. This will be a day of great celebration at our house. And there’s no better way to celebrate, than to treat yourself (or another well-deserving person) to a beautiful bunch of fresh cut flowers, especially for the first day of spring. Nothing enlivens my spirit more, particularly after the cold and colourless months of winter, than to bring home a bright bouquet of tulips, daffodils, irises and sweetheart roses. Every time I look at the flowers, it reminds me that I will soon be out in my garden, cutting my own beautiful blooms.
To keep your cut flowers looking their best and lasting a long time, here are a few tips to follow:
Tip #1: Always choose the freshest looking bunch. I know this goes without saying, but if the colours and types of flowers you like are in a bunch that looks a bit tired, pass it by. You will only be disappointed when they fade quickly. When choosing roses, gently squeeze the rose head where the petals meet the top of the stem; if this is firm, they are fresh. If it is soft, the roses are old.
Tip #2: Once a flower has been cut it has lost its source of water. It is therefore most important when bringing your flowers home to keep stems moist and get the bouquet into a vase as quickly as possible. If purchasing your flowers from a grocery store, cover the bottoms in a plastic bag before having them wrapped to keep stems from drying out.
Tip #3: Inspect your flowers when you get them home. Take off any wilted leaves, and also any greenery that will be submerged in water as this will keep the water cleaner longer.
Tip #4: Now it is time to cut the stems. When flower stems are cut, they should be cut under running water or in a bowl of water to stop air from entering the stem. If air enters the water conducting tissues in the stem, the stem becomes plugged, resulting in flowers that wilt. Cut about 1” to 2” off the bottom using a sharp knife. Scissors tend to crush the stem creating more water uptake problems. Once cut, place your flowers quickly into the vase you are using for your arrangement…which brings us to tip #5.
Tip #5: Always use a sparkling clean vase that has been washed with soap and rinsed well to eliminate any microorganisms that could cause slimy water and ultimate plant demise. This is why it is most important to keep as much foliage out of the vase water.
Tip #6: Since cut flowers are no longer receiving any nutrients from their roots, it is important to give them a source of food to keep them lasting longer. The commercial flower food packets available from the florist have everything your bouquet will need, and will also help to open any unopened buds. If possible, ask for several packets as you will want to change the water every other day and put in a fresh packet.
Tip # 7: Keep an eye on your flowers and do not let them run dry. Cut flowers are quite heavy drinkers – peonies, hydrangeas and roses can often drain a vase in 24hours. If the vase does run dry, you will have to cut the stems as in tip #4.
Tip #8: For longer lasting blooms, keep your bouquet out of direct sunlight and in a cooler part of the house. You can also change the water every few days and re-cut the stems to encourage better water uptake.
Tip #9: Cut flowers also enjoy a light misting to keep petals fresh. Keep the misting bottle about 8” from the bouquet, being sure not to drench the petals as this will damage them.
Tip #10: This last tip is more the answer to a question I get asked fairly often at the garden centre: why do the heads of my cut roses droop shortly after I get them home? This occurs because air has gotten into the stems and is stopping water from getting to the flower heads. Do not despair however, as there is a quick remedy for this that seems to work almost all the time. You will need some newspaper, a clean vase of lukewarm water, and a sharp knife or pruning shears. Lay two to three layers of newspaper on a table. Take your rose, lay it on the newspaper, and roll the rose fairly tightly in the paper forming a cone. Tape the cone together, and pull the stem of the rose out the bottom about 2” to 3”. Make a fresh cut using the knife or shears and quickly put the rose, paper and all, into the vase. Leave overnight, and in the morning unwrap the newspaper…your rose should be standing tall and beautiful.
All of these tips also apply of course to flowers cut from your own gardens. This will come soon enough, but for now, while you are out buying milk and bread, stop by the florist section of the store and drink in all the fabulous colours and scents of fresh flowers. Treat yourself to your favourite bouquet…it’s like dessert for your eyes and nose! Off to cross yet another day off my countdown to spring calendar, I remain…The Optimistic Gardener!
Feb. 2015
Keep Calm…and Wait for Spring (Part 1)
“In winter I plot and plan…in Spring I move” Henry Rollins
I am generally a very patient person. I will stand quietly in
a slow-moving line at the store, or in a crowd waiting to get into a
concert. I don’t fidget or fuss because I know it won’t make things
move any faster if I do. There is one thing however that I do tend to
get a bit impatient for, and that is the arrival of spring. On cold winter
afternoons, I will often catch myself pacing in front of the living room
windows, like a caged animal, looking out at the garden and wishing
I was out there, instead if in here. I believe it’s a curse of almost all
gardeners that we prefer to be communing with Mother Nature as
opposed to observing her from a distance. So, as I am presently caught
between the first day of winter and the first day of spring, what am
I to do? For me, the next best thing to outdoor gardening is indoor
gardening, and this is precisely what I am doing.
There is no denying that I have an abundance of house plants.
Apart from the fact that they add beauty to a room, I am also pleased
to know that they are very busy cleaning my air and adding lovely
humidity which is constantly being robbed by the furnace. It is usually
in February, when days are getting noticeably longer and some almost
feel like spring, that I start looking for a new houseplant or two. It’s
not that I necessarily need any new plants; it’s more to satisfy my
need to get my hands in some dirt. I also find that there’s something
about bringing a new plant home that is very uplifting to any spirit
caught in the winter doldrums.
The latest addition to my house plant family is a beautiful
Dracaena deremensis “Warneckii Goldstar”. This plant has strikingly
brilliant foliage in shades of lime green, dark green and grey and it’s
upright form makes it perfect for highlighting the corner of a room.
The dracaenas are relatively easy-care plants, requiring medium to
low light, average room temperatures and watering when dry. They
are also clean air plants, helping to remove toxins, and in particular
those associated with varnishes and oils. I actually agonized between
two Dracaenas, the other being the Limelight variety which has almost
fluorescent green leaves, but surrendered to the Goldstar as its colour
matches almost perfectly to my new shade in the bedroom.
There are so many fabulous houseplants available these days
that it is often hard to choose. Although I am somewhat partial to
the softer, leafy looking plants such as Boston Ferns, English Ivies,
Weeping Figs and Peace Lilies, I also have two enormous Snake
Plants standing guard at my upstairs landing windows and now my
new Dracaena, which are both very angular plants and quite different
from my others. The Sanseveria (snake plant) and the Dracaena both
seem to handle drier air conditions well which makes them wonderful
winter house guests. They also seem to be slightly more pest resistant;
not being the plant of choice for many of our unwanted winter pests
such as spider mites, mealy bugs and scale.
As well as increasing my houseplant population, I also gave
my Christmas cactuses a much needed pruning. This is something I
should have done several years ago, but never had the heart as they
bloom so profusely and always look quite attractive, despite their
rather large size. My “mother plant” is now approaching 25 years old
and just this year, after blooming in early December, started to look
a bit straggly. It was time to prune. I took off about one third of the
plant, cutting between segments, and giving it a much better shape.
I had to resist taking some choice cuttings to root as I already have
several offspring from this plant, and would have to pack up and
move out if I made any more. This is also the perfect time to clean
your plants by wiping the leaves using a soft cloth and warm water.
This will remove dust and give them a nice shine.
They say patience is a virtue but this time of year really tests
my mettle. Very soon the house will be filled with bulb pots boasting
bright blooms of tulips, daffodils and hyacinths for if I can’t yet
get to spring, then I shall bring spring to me. And as I sit and enjoy
the colour and the scent of my indoor plants, I will be plotting and
planning my strategy for the first day I can get out in the garden…
and get moving! Keeping calm until then,

Be It Resolved

I love the start of a new year. It’s like a 365 day “do-over” – a chance to finish old projects, start (and hopefully complete) new projects, change a few bad habits, develop some good ones, right wrongs and solve the world’s problems…a tall order to be sure. But as the days start to get longer in January and the light of spring is shining at the end of the winter tunnel, it’s hard not to get a bit excited about all the possibilities! This year I am bound and determined to finish a few garden projects that have been on my plate for several years. One is to “thin out” some of my gardens making them a little easier to care for. For some reason, it seems to take me a bit longer these days to weed, dead head and get in and out of my gardens than it did 10 years ago. The other is to deer-proof the vegetable garden so that I can grow beans, lettuce and Swiss chard once again. The deer don’t bother my onion garden, but woman cannot live by onions alone.

As most of my gardens are now reaching the 25 year old mark, it is time to look at their structure and see where I can make some improvements. When I first started out, like many beginner gardeners I wanted beautiful full gardens immediately…no waiting. They say that patience is a virtue, but not when you live in zone 3b. So I over-planted my gardens, which was all fine and dandy for the first year or two, and then all hell broke loose with plants competing for space, crowding each other out and generally becoming quite disorderly. I can just see Mother Nature wagging her finger at me with a stern “tsk tsk” at not allowing my plants time to come to maturity and fill in my gardens slowly. The remedy for this was to remove one or two plants to another location. This did however leave an empty space…and of course you know what happened then…I ran right out and purchased one or two more plants to fill those empty spaces (restraint is difficult when you are obsessed). Now that I am older and wiser, when I move plants this spring to open the garden up, I will not (repeat “will not”) go out and buy more plants. I have quite a few plants that need dividing, so if I need more, they are close at hand. Dividing perennials is another garden task of mine that I do not do as often as I should. Dividing over grown plants is extremely beneficial for them; it gives them more room to grow, keeps them healthier and better looking and encourages blooming. When a perennial develops a donut shape with an area that has died out in the middle, has decreased blooming, or stopped blooming all together, it’s time to divide. When I do divide my perennials, I do it in the spring. Some gardening books will recommend dividing in the fall however I find that with our changing weather patterns, I like to make sure any plants I move have the benefit of a full growing season to get good roots down before winter. I am quite looking forward to opening up the gardens this spring – it’s like rearranging the furniture…gives the room a whole new look.

Regarding deer-proofing the vegetable gardens, I think page wire and posts are my weapons of choice. I have tried the netting solution only to have the deer tear through it to get at my beans and lettuce. I have also tried scarecrows, tinfoil balls on strings and pinwheels which all worked temporarily. The deer found them at first amusing, then boring, then annoying, at which point they ate as much as they could to teach me a lesson. As there are just the two of us at home now, I have downsized the veggie gardens, and creating a page wire “force field” around them will be a relatively easy job. The only way the deer will be able to get at my crop of greens this summer is to have “the Enterprise beam them inside the fence”(for all you “Trekkies” out there). I am quite looking forward to having fresh lettuce, chard, beets and green beans again…it’s going to be a good year.

Now that the hustle and bustle of the holidays is past and the children have flown the nest yet again, it’s time to pull out my stack of gardening magazines and plan my strategy. We never know if spring will be early or late but being prepared when it arrives is half the battle. With Meg’s wedding coming up in August and the band recording in New York with a major record producer, 2015 will be exciting and busy. Rejuvenating the gardens will be one more star in what I hope to be a stellar year! Off to start my plan of attack with a cup of tea in one hand and the latest edition of Canadian Gardening in the other, I remain…The Optimistic Gardener!

Christmas at Our House

Life is busy these days, there’s no doubt about it. The markers we use to define our lives – birthdays, summers, Christmases – seem to fly by at an ever-increasing speed, allowing us what seems like less and less time to enjoy them. Christmas time can be particularly hectic, what with presents to buy, decorations to put up, parties to plan, parcels to send, and somewhere in all that, to find time to allow yourself to become a child again and feel the magic you felt so many years ago. It’s still there, deep inside, waiting for the tune of your favourite Christmas carol or a friend to wish you a “Merry Christmas” to ignite it like a sparkler.

I make it a tradition every Christmas to read that very famous piece from the New York City newspaper The Sun, entitled “Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”. It’s a good reminder in this day and age, where there is a scientific explanation for everything, that some things cannot always be explained with science, but are best explained by how you feel in your heart. It also reminds us the importance of believing, even if the belief is not founded on fact.

I can remember my many Christmases like they were yesterday, something for which I am very grateful. When I was much (much) younger, our Christmas festivities were centered around family – which always included my grandparents, my aunt, uncle and cousins. We spent every Christmas together from the time I was born until I moved away in my late twenties. Even then, I still went home for Christmas with my own family in tow, and to this day, although we are no longer all together, our traditions have not changed. On Christmas Eve, we all went out for dinner – nothing terribly fancy but the same place every year. This also seemed to be the place where most of my parents, aunt and uncle and grandparents friends also went for dinner, turning the evening into an enormous party much to the amusement (and often the chagrin) of the restaurant staff. On Christmas morning, we would head downstairs to see what Santa had brought and open a few presents. Dad would make his special Christmas breakfast – half a grapefruit, fried eggs, bangers and toast, while my sister and I would play carol duets on the piano. If it was our year to host Christmas dinner, as it was shared from year to year between Mum, my aunt, and my grandmother, Mum would be busy in the kitchen stuffing the turkey and getting countless pots of vegetables ready. It was always (and still is) Dad’s job to set the table, and he did it beautifully – white linen tablecloth and napkins, our best silverware, china and crystal. Mum loves flowers, and the centerpiece was always a mix of red roses, carnations and holly.

Our family festivities would begin in the afternoon when everyone would arrive. By this time we had changed out of our PJ’s into our best clothes, had our hair curled, and might even had been treated to a spritz of Mum’s perfume. The afternoon was spent opening gifts, all of which were brought over by the rest of the family. Some years the tree was half buried by presents, but with twelve people in the family, it was understandable. Most presents were very practical – a new garbage can for the kitchen, a new fishing net, a new pair of work gloves. One year my cousin David received a road race set, which I really think was more for my uncle and my Dad than for David, as he didn’t actually get to play with it until Boxing Day. And there was always a new game which we would all play after Christmas dinner. At the end of the evening, full of turkey, Christmas pudding and completely talked and laughed out, we would say good night to those who had to head home. But they would all be back on Boxing Day to finish up the turkey and talk, laugh and play games all over again. Many of my friends have asked me how our families have managed to all stay great friends over the years, spending so much time together ( we also had every Sunday dinner together through the year), and I think that in itself involved a little magic.

These days, we are no longer all together. We have spread out from coast to coast, but our hearts are always together for Christmas. Through modern technology, we can skype on Christmas morning, watch presents being opened, laugh at gag gifts and share stories and memories of Christmases past. Michael and Megan still come home for Christmas, Di and Dave are with Mum & Dad in Victoria, and all my cousins and their families still spend Christmas our old traditional way in Winnipeg, but one way or another, we manage to connect with everyone on the big day. If I could make one wish for Christmas, it would be to always remember the value of family and friends, and cherish the time spent together.

This Christmas may you have health and happiness, peace and prosperity, but mostly the joy of family. And remember to believe, for once you believe, the magic will be yours. From our house to your house I wish you a very Merry Christmas! Off to put up the garland and tie the bows on the bannister, I remain…The Optimistic Gardener!

Carpet Diem

It was one of those incredible autumn weekends, the kind that you hope to be blessed with as a fitting end to summer. Keeping an eye on the weather through the week prior, it looked as if the last weekend in September would be the perfect time to head to Grand Marais to catch the fabulous fall colours and do some backwoods hiking. After a delightful dinner with friends on the Friday night, we planned to start out early Saturday morning and spend the whole day outside enjoying the masterpiece that happens this time of year. Heading out on highway 130, with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young on the radio, we drove through the Slate River valley which was bathed in shades of gold, green, and here and there, brilliant orange. Hay fields were dotted with round bales and square bales drying in the sun. The temperature continued to rise as we drove south, and it looked as though we would be breaking out our summer clothes one last time.

Grand Marais was bustling with tourists, with cars sporting license plates from all over Canada and the United States. Everyone was there to see the fall colours. We managed to book the last hotel room in town, and after checking in and changing into our hiking gear, we drove to Oberg Mountain, one of our favourite hiking spots. The trail is an easy uphill climb, winding through golden maples, poplars and mountain ash. This trail is particularly enchanting because there is very little under growth along it, allowing the hiker to see deep into the forest, enjoying all the changes in colour and topography. The trail circles the top of the mountain, giving you a 360 degree view of the surrounding area. The jewel in this crown is the huge stand of maples in the valley to the west which can be viewed from several prime lookouts.

It is hard to tear yourself away from these views and continue down the trail as they are breathtaking and almost mesmerizing with the richness of colours. The abundance of rain this summer has resulted in an amazing variety of mushrooms in the forest, in colours as varied as the foliage above. Not knowing which are safe to eat, we follow a “look but don??t touch” policy when it comes to these delicious but sometimes dangerous fungi.

By the time we were on our way back down the mountain, the trail was well populated with hikers of all ages, everyone greeting passers by with “Good morning, lovely day” and “Aren??t colours fabulous”. We headed back to the parking lot and crossed to the south side where the trail for Mount LeVeaux begins. This is a deep woods trail with evergreens and thick undergrowth. The temperature in the woods dropped considerably which was a nice reprieve from the unseasonal warmth of the day. We continued to climb and came out of the forest to a trail heading up the mountain. This is a slightly more arduous climb but not enough to put us off from reaching the top. Again the view was amazing and we lingered as long as possible, etching all that was saw in our memories.

Having had a bite of lunch up on the mountain, it was now time for a cup of tea so after trekking back down the trail, we drove to Grand Marais and our favourite spot along Lake Superior for a London Fog (Earl Grey latte). Gardens in the town were still bright with flowers – vibrant blue Endless Summer hydrangeas, deep pink coneflowers, rich yellow and brown rudbeckia and red and pink Autumn Joy sedum. Later that evening we strolled the streets and along the water front, still in summer clothes as it was as warm as July.

Sunday turned out to be another stellar day. We had a leisurely breakfast and started home just after noon, doing some hiking and visiting the many Lake Superior beaches along the way. Being able to experience fall in all its glory in the northwest is an incredible privilege. This was a weekend we will not easily forget.

Now, as snow begins to cover the colours of fall, we look forward to the festive season with sparkling lights, bright red, gold and green decorations, curling up by the fire, and having everyone home for the holidays. But when the wind howls and the snow flies, I can close my eyes and see the red maples of the Oberg valley, and remember that wonderful fall day, nature’s gift to us. Note to self…Carpe Diem! Off to start digging out the Christmas decorations, and getting ready to make more great memories, I remain….The Optimistic Gardener!

Adventures in Paradise

( Or What I Did on My Summer Vacation)

I found myself in a dark forest. Although I don??t believe Dante was referring to Cathedral Grove on Vancouver Island when he wrote this beginning line for his Divine Comedy, it was the first thing that came to my mind as I entered this most incredible and awe-inspiring stand of ancient trees. On my island bucket list, Cathedral Grove was right up there with experiencing the big surf at Long Beach, whale watching, zip-lining and jumping off the diving tower at my sister??s neighbours dock at Lake Cowichan (it was after the annual dock to dock Margarita Swim so I had some liquid fortification). I managed to accomplish all of these on our pilgrimage to the west coast this summer, including visiting some amazing gardens. Despite the very dry conditions and very warm temperatures, the island was still relatively lush and green – a testament to the healing powers of sea air which always holds a little moisture. Although much of the grass was all brown, grass is very forgiving and goes dormant until the first rains of fall when it miraculously turns green again.

Our visit to Cathedral Grove was an inspiring, and humbling experience. It is an area of protected old growth forest between Parksville and Port Alberni. The day of our visit was quite warm, and upon entering the forest the temperature dropped at least ten degrees which was a welcome reprieve from the heat. Standing among Douglas Firs and Red Cedars which have been growing in that forest for well over eight hundred years, and looking up to their staggering heights, one realizes how insignificant we are in the overall scheme of things, but also how much we impact our environment despite our insignificance. There is one Douglas Fir in the grove that is over two hundred and fifty feet high and over thirty feet in diametre. Looking up to see the top of this tree, you have the feeling of falling backwards, being so dwarfed by its immense height.

The following weekend, we took in Butchart??s Garden breathtaking gardens and spectacular evening fireworks show. The sunken garden was a profusion of colour, the rose garden a delight for the eyes and the nose, and the Japanese Garden a tranquil retreat for both body and soul. After several circuits around the gardens, the sun was setting and we settled on our blanket to watch the fireworks display which proved to be a fitting end to a stellar day.

A Victoria garden often missed is the one at Government House. This is a wonderful old garden with lovely pathways and an amazing variety of plants. It uses the full scope of the topography on the property and includes a natural species garden as well. Enormous blue and mauve hydrangeas are scattered through the property, with one of the highlights being the very large herb knot garden.

A gardener??s trip to Victoria would not be complete without a visit to Abkhazia Garden. This gem located in the heart of the city is one of the most serene gardens I have ever had the pleasure to visit. Abkhazia in the summer is bright and colourful, and the tea room located in the original house serves the most delicious tea biscuits and Devonshire cream.

Our visit to the Horticultural Centre of the Pacific this summer included an art and music event as well, which gave us a wonderful overview of the artistic talent of the peninsula. Vendors and musicians were set up throughout the gardens and included everything from pottery and painting to sewing and stained glass. We spent several hours visiting all the booths and strolling up and down the garden paths. A highlight of the garden was the bonsai display with over 20 varieties of trees, in miniature form, gracefully trained to appear as if swept by the wind or growing on the side of a hill. Many of the trees were over 50 years old, a testament to the patience and dedication of the gardeners who grow them.

When we weren??t visiting gardens we were hiking on the many wonderful trails on the island. And when we were hiking, we were also eating our fill of delicious blackberries that grow along the trails and roadsides everywhere. I have come to the conclusion that you could never get scurvy if you lived in Victoria…just eat blackberries!

At the end of our holiday, we were sad to leave the island as it could not have been more perfect, both with weather (only a day and a half of rain) and time spent with family and friends. We will however return next summer for a very special occasion that will again bring together flowers, gardens, family and friends when we celebrate Meg and Steve??s wedding. In the mean time, I am off to enjoy the wonderful late summer colour of day lilies, rudbeckia, and grasses in my own garden, and as always I remain…The Optimistic Gardener!

Just the FAQs, Ma’am!

Gardening is one hobby that keeps you constantly learning. Even as a wee girl, I was always by my mother??s side in the garden helping and learning as I went. When I first started to garden on my own, I was constantly calling her to ask questions on how much to water, when to prune, how deep to plant and when to transplant. That is the beauty of gardening ? not only do you get a great workout physically, but it also keeps you sharp mentally (mostly trying to remember what is planted where, personally speaking). This time of year is particularly busy question-wise at the garden centre, so I thought I would give you some of my gardening FAQ??s. These are my most asked questions so hopefully they will be helpful to you too.

Q: When can I plant my perennials and bedding plants?

A: Annuals and perennials grown in the greenhouse have not been exposed to the unprotected rays of the sun or outdoor temperature changes. Before they can be planted outside, greenhouse grown plants must be hardened off. Hardening off allows plants to adapt from being in a protected, stable environment to changeable, harsher weather conditions. If suddenly placed outside, the shock can severely slow a plant??s growth. The effect of hardening off is to thicken and alter the plant??s leaf structure and increase leaf waxiness. It helps with frost tolerance but will not make frost tender plants frost hardy. Place plants outside during the day in a sheltered spot for about a week before planting; bring them inside at night if there is risk of frost, if not, they can be left out at night. Keep an eye on night time temperatures and plant when the risk of a killing frost is past.

Q: Why does my Karl Foerster grass die out in the middle?

A:Calamagrostis x acutiflora Karl Foerster or Feather Reed Grass is a fabulous addition to any perennial garden. Its stately plumes often reach over 5 feet in height, it is pest free, very hardy, and adds wonderful winter interest. However, as with almost all perennials, it does need dividing periodically, and will let you know by slowly dying out in the middle. When you cut back your grasses in the spring and see this “donut-hole” shape happening, it??s time to dig and divide. You will most likely get several vigourous divisions from the parent grass, giving you more additions to your garden. Dividing overgrown perennials rejuvenates them resulting in healthier, better looking plants.

Q: What is the best fertilizer to use on my garden?

A: That depends on what you are growing. If you are talking about annuals, the fertilizer should have a higher middle number (such as 15-30-15) referring to phosphorous which annual plants need to keep vigorously blooming all summer long. If you are growing perennials, the fertilizer numbers need to be more moderate (such as 8-12-14 ) as these plants return for several years and must not be pushed too hard. If you are growing leafy vegetables such as lettuce, spinach, or Swiss chard, these need a higher first number which is nitrogen and used for green growth. Root crops on the other hand need more phosphorous as this is used for root development. Using the correct fertilizer on your flowers and vegetables will result in larger, healthier plants and more reward for your labours.

Q: Why is the pH of my soil so important?

A: Soil pH is a measure of its acidity or alkalinity. It is important because it influences how easily plants can take up nutrients. When soil pH is too high or too low, nutrients do not dissolve well in water, making them unavailable to plants. Most plants grow well in a pH range of 5.5 to 7. If your garden has been declining over several years, testing the pH is a good place to start your quest to solve the problem. I remember one year at camp, the plants in Mum??s containers were just not growing as they should. Mum always used compost in them that she had made the previous summer so, thinking it could be the pH, I had the compost tested and it was definitely alkaline ? 7.8. At this level, phosphorous was unavailable to the plants causing poor blooming, and other micronutrients were also tied up causing overall poor plant health. The next spring we lowered the pH and all was well. Potatoes are particularly sensitive to higher soil pH, often resulting in potato scab being a problem at harvest.

Every spring brings a whole new variety of gardening questions, and there??s nothing better that I love than to talk gardening. I particularly enjoy the questions I can??t answer as that gives me the opportunity to head to the computer or my source books and find the solution. I often have several people in my office crowded around my computer as we check different sites or comb through images trying to “name that plant”. There is one question though, the answer to which has always eluded me??why do the weeds in my garden grow so much faster than the perennials??if I had the answer to that one, I??d be a genius! We have a particularly exciting year ahead with a wedding to plan for next summer and a new record label for the band. But for now, I shall be in the garden, finding the answers to life, love, and the pursuit of happiness. Wishing you a wonderful summer of gardening, I remain??The Optimistic Gardener!

 

Who goes there: Friend of Foe
??I have grown vegetables every year for at least the last 14 years, apart from the odd interruption.? I have never known a year for slugs like 2012.? They have destroyed my garden in a way I have never previously witnessed.? It has felt like the gelatinous Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan have not just swept through my garden, levelling everything in their wake, but they have also set up camp there, declared an Independent Free State requiring me now to pass through check points on my way to the compost heap.? I went out to de-slug the night Spain won Euro 2012 and the slugs in my garden were strangely reminiscent of the scenes you see on TV where the fans of the winning team party in the streets, drive around beeping their horns with flags flying.?? Rob Hopkins, Transition Culture.
As I read the above quote, I was both laughing and panicking at the same time, knowing that in a few short weeks, insects will be hatching or coming out of their dormant state and looking for all the tasty new shoots and flower buds in my garden. When we talk of insects in the garden it is generally of the undesirable kind. There are however many beneficial insects that inhabit our treasured Edens and actually help to keep the unwanted intruders at bay. Below I??ve short-listed five of the worst garden culprits (sort of like being in contention for a dubious Oscar) but followed that with a few ??good guys?? that should be welcomed into the garden and encouraged to stay.
Aphids: aphids are tiny, under an eighth of an inch long, with a pear-shaped body, long antennae and available in a range of colours from black through green and even pink. They can have a waxy or wooly coating and are most often wingless. They feed on plant juices and prefer succulent new growth. There are not many plants that aphids don??t like, however I have read that marigolds, nasturtiums, and members of the onion family have some resistance. Measures to control aphids include hosing down affected plants, pruning off infested plant parts, encouraging birds into your garden to eat the aphids, in particular Chickadees and wrens, discouraging ants from your garden as they protect the aphids, and spraying with insecticidal soaps and pyrethrins.
Cutworms: a devious and underhanded pest that waits just under the earth??s surface until tender shoots are at their most delectable and with one quick bite??you find your plants lying on the ground with no evidence of the culprit. But wait; cutworms are lazy creatures and very often, if you dig around what??s left of your? plant, you will find the perpetrator snoozing with a full stomach. Cutworms (actually a caterpillar and not a worm) look like a pudgy brown caterpillar, and tend to curl up tightly when touched. There are several ways to control cutworm damage in your garden: put cardboard or metal collars around new transplants, circle stems with diatomaceous earth or crushed egg shells, sprinkle used coffee grounds around your plants, and spray with an insecticide containing bacillus thuringiensis with targets caterpillars.
Slugs: these sneaky gastropods are the bain of many gardeners?? existence, slithering in at night to wreak havoc on hostas, lilies, irises, dahlias and a host of various vegetables. Looking like a snail without a shell, these slimy gluttons hide during the heat of the day, usually under rocks or logs, and come out in the cool of the evening to feast on all your best foliage. There are a few ways to attempt to rid your garden of slugs, but they are persistent. Firstly, slugs love beer. Leave a bowl of beer out in the garden at night and in the morning you will find several deceased slugs who drowned in the beer (not a bad way to go, or so I??ve been told). Diatomaceous earth will also work with slugs, as well as slug bait. Hand picking is a final option, although I??m sure there are better things to do late at night than hide in the garden waiting for slugs.
Potato Beetles: the Colorado Potato Beetle causes significant damage to potato crops every year. Adults over winter in the soil, emerge in the spring and lay eggs on the potato plants. The larva feed on the potato leaves, becoming adults in anywhere from 14 to 56 days. There can be several generations in one season. Because they feed on potato leaves which contain toxins, potato beetles have developed a high resistance to pesticides. Control includes rotating crops regularly, using diatomaceous earth to control emerging adults, using beneficial insects such as Lady Beetles or parasitic wasps, and of course, good old hand picking.
Earwigs: just plain creepy??nuff said. Earwigs don??t crawl into your ears at night when you??re sleeping but they do go after quite a few plants in your garden. They are however scavengers of decaying matter and predators of slug eggs, aphids and insect larva as well??there??s always a catch. Earwigs can be controlled with insecticides, using diatomaceous earth, and exposing damp areas of your garden.
The Good Guys: welcome these insects into your garden ? they will help control the bad guys and help you rest at night knowing you have your own private army hard at work for you.? Lady Beetles eat aphids, mites and mealy bugs; plant dill, yarrow and angelica to attract them. Lacewings eat aphids, caterpillars, scale, thrips and whiteflies; plant cosmos and sweet alyssum to attract them. Parasitic wasps use caterpillars, beetles, flies and other insects as their hosts; plant fennel, angelica, cilantro and mint to attract them.
Every gardening season, we face the unknown ? will we have enough rain, too much rain, enough sun, too much sun??unfortunately, this we cannot control. But armed with a little knowledge of who our insect adversaries are, we can fight the good fight??and maybe even win once in a while! Off to stock up on diatomaceous earth, insecticidal soap, and beer, I remain??The Optimistic Gardener!

Please Sir: I want some more!
Ahhh, Spring! A time of rebirth and renewal, when a gardener??s thoughts turn to seeding, planting and ??propagation! Now, before you start thinking that this article might contain subject matter not suitable for children??I am, of course, talking about plant propagation. Spring is one of the best times to propagate your houseplants. It is at this time of year that our houseplants start to actively grow again, having gone through a dormant period during the winter (much like we do!). Many plants propagate quite easily, and this is a great way to make more of your favourite plants for yourself, or to give some away to family and friends. I have a 27 year old Christmas cactus that I purchased when Michael was born. I have started 5 plants from the mother plant. The first one, now 10 years old, is almost as big as the mother plant, and the others have been given away to friends who have admired the cactus and wished they had one the same. Not unlike Oliver Twist, gardeners have an insatiable appetite for plants, and propagation is a perfect way to ??get a second helping??.
There are several ways that plants can be propagated. One of the easiest methods is by taking a cutting and rooting it in water. Plants that respond well to this method are English Ivy, Pothos, Spider Plant, Philodendron??in fact most vines will readily root in water. It is important to cut the newest growth, about 4?? ? 6?? from the end, being sure to take some of the leaves off so the cutting doesn??t have to work as hard to send water to extra leaves. It may take a few weeks but soon you will see tiny roots growing from the sides of the stem, usually at the site of a node. I have some variegated ivy from Mum??s garden in Victoria in February, which I put in a glass of water and has produced a mass of roots and is ready for planting. Once the cutting has rooted it can be planted in a small pot using light weight potting soil. Water regularly making sure the new roots do not dry out.
Some plants do not root well in water, and cuttings will actually rot before roots will form (the Christmas cactus being one of them). For these plants you will need to use a rooting hormone. Rooting hormones were discovered by Dutch scientists in the 1930??s and are available for herbaceous, semi-herbaceous and woody plants. To propagate a plant using rooting hormone, take a leaf cutting or a stem cutting with one or two leaves attached. First dip the end of the cutting in water, and then in the appropriate rooting hormone powder. Shake off any excess powder as too much hormone can actually be detrimental to rooting. The cutting can now be planted in sterile potting soil. Keep the cutting covered with a plastic bag to hold moisture in, acting like a terrarium. Place the plant in a bright area but out of direct sunlight to avoid getting too hot. After several weeks new growth should appear on the cutting indicating that a good root system has formed.
If you don??t have any rooting hormone, you can make some from willow branches. Called ??willow water??, it is a home brew made by soaking the first year growth of any tree or shrub of the willow family in water. The branches must be green or yellow which indicates a young branch as opposed to brown or grey indicating age. This homemade method works because of two substances that can be found within the willow species -? indolebutyric acid (IBA) and Salicylic acid (SA). Indolebutyric acid (IBA) is a plant hormone that stimulates root growth. It is present in high concentrations in the growing tips of willow branches. By using the actively growing parts of a willow branch, cutting them, and soaking them in water, you can get significant quantities of IBA to leach out into the water. Salicylic acid (SA) (which is a chemical similar to Aspirin) is a plant hormone which is involved in signaling a plant??s defenses.
When you make willow water, both salicylic acid and IBA leach into the water, and both have a beneficial effect when used for the propagation of cuttings. One of the biggest threats to newly propagated cuttings is infection by bacteria and fungi. Salicylic acid helps plants to fight off infection, and can thus give cuttings a better chance of survival. Plants, when attacked by infectious agents, often do not produce salicylic acid quickly enough to defend themselves, so providing the acid in water can be particularly beneficial. You can also use the willow water to water your cuttings once they are planted, up to a maximum of two times, to help stimulate root growth.
Spring can never come soon enough after a long cold winter. As the days get longer, gardeners get anxious to get back in the garden, smell the earth and feel it between their fingers. In the meantime, while we patiently (or not so patiently) wait for the snows to melt and the ground to thaw, we can make some new plants, share them with our friends, and show Mother Nature and Old Man Winter that we can ??have our cake and eat it too! Off to check on my plethora of propagae, I remain??The Optimistic Gardener!