A short birthday tribute to gardening goddess Elizabeth Loomer

violetI rely on a month-by-month birthday calendar that hangs on the wall in my office. When google’s artificial non-intelligence kept multiplying birthday reminders, I stopped using my electronic calendar for this task. Perhaps a function of my advancing age, I now have as many dead people in my birthday calendar as live* people. This annual reminder  is far from morbid, but gives me a chance to fondly remember family and friends who still mean so much.

Today, April 2, is Elizabeth Loomer’s birthday, one of the most devoted** gardeners I’ve ever known and my gardening inspiration. We first met in the fall of 1986, when I rented her basement suite. The small house in Cadboro Bay was surrounded by Elizabeth’s gorgeous garden and every window looked out on flowers and greenery. My parents were more practical gardeners and our yard was divided equally into lawn (with a few trees) and a vegetable patch where my parents worked hard to get things to grow. In contrast, Elizabeth’s garden was a verdant living entity that had to be tamed. Her garden and greenhouse were always full of wonderful things: enormous rhododendrons, unusual berries, and quiet corners where one could go to escape. She would bring the garden inside: gorgeous zen-like arrangements of branches and blossoms floating in bowls near the entrance.

In the years I lived there – and beyond – Elizabeth was second mother to me, and her daughters the sisters I always wish I had. Elizabeth’s enviable gardening talent (and the greenhouse) lives on with her daughters (both still in my birthday calendar). Today while I was working in the garden I thought of Elizabeth, and appreciated how much she changed the way I garden, with her encouragement and example.

In the garden this weekend

Whew, it was great weather, so I spent a lot of time outside.

  • I installed a series of soaker hoses for the raspberries. I am short about 15 feet of soaker hose, so left the front of the raspberry batch without irrigation as that is the easiest to water manually.  While the majority of canes are now budding, some seem slower and I worry that they are not well. I also sprinkled berry fertilizer throughout the patch in anticipation of the Big Spring Rains coming next week.
  • It’s April, so I planted nasturtiums everywhere.
  • I planted one row of Italian Endive, a row of Freckles lettuce (a slug favourite), a row of “Kale Storm” seed balls and two rows of Orion fennel in bed #1 next to the garlic (which is all up now). I activated the Slug Shield*** and am hoping for the best.
  • I did a lot of general clean up, weeding and admiring of small blossoms including violets.

The forecast for Vancouver in the next week is rainy. I only hope that it stays warm and doesn’t freeze.

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*Shameful confession: there simply isn’t space or time for the dramatic and self-absorbed, so every few years I transcribe only the deserving into a new calendar.

**Exactly how do you describe a good gardener? Talented? Gifted? Dedicated? Experienced? Visionary? A combination of some or all of those things?

***The slug shield is a woven copper ribbon that you can wrap around your favourite plants and around entire beds. One roll is enough for two – half raised beds. I also sprinkled around crushed eggshells in a sort of voodoo mojo slug repellent thing.

 

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Celebrating the first harvest of the year and hopeful raspberry propagation

Today I harvested the first bouquet of kale this year. I roasted the kale Melissa Clark style, at 450 degrees with lots of olive oil and tossed it with a Melissa Clark-inspired yogurt-garlic-lemon juice dressing. Topped with toasted walnuts, half an avocado and fresh chives from the garden, it was fabulous.

Dinner: Changing the Game” is my current favourite cookbook and features Melissa Clark’s fast (less than 45 minutes), tasty and adaptable recipes. I was introduced to the book through a cookbook club (cook bookclub? cookbook bookclub?) started by my friend Sarah. I am already part way through our next book, “Salt Fat Acid Heat” by Samin Nosrat. Although Melissa’s book has changed how I cook, Samin’s book takes things to a whole new level. She breaks down and describes each of the elements of cooking (as per the title) and teaches the reader how to improvise. Kitchen improv skills are essential for adapting to the sometimes unexpected combinations and quantities of fresh garden produce.

Garden update

Vancouver is still unseasonably cold, but things are growing. The peas and radishes that I planted three weeks ago are sprouting, so yesterday I planted a few more rows of each. I surrounded the pea bed with my new slug-repelling copper ribbon from West Coast Seeds and covered the bed with a frame to hopefully keep the birds from plucking up the sprouts. Still no sign of the fava beans.

Raspberry propagation: advice from the master gardener

One of my largest raspberry canes snapped off after getting weighted down by heavy snow last month. I asked one of my friends (who may or may not be a master gardener*) what I should do and she directed me to this website:   http://homeguides.sfgate.com/replant-broken-raspberry-plant-54577.html

I won’t reproduce the instructions here, except to emphasize that I washed the pots with soap and water and made up the potting mixture exactly as they advised. Each piece had about six leaf nodes, and the plants that I am trying to propagate vary in size depending on how high up the cane that they came from. At this point each of the plants has started to leaf and even flower; I am not sure if I should let them continue leafing or if I should pinch off the leaves. More research required.

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*Apparently, being a Master Gardener is like being in Fight Club: the first rule of being a Master Gardener is that you do not talk about being a Master Gardener. Or something like that.

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Spring planting and front yard rehab

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The snowdrops in the back survived last weeks snow.

Finally! Yesterday was the sunniest day of the year so far (23.96 kWh generated), so I was able to get outside and plant something. For many months the only thing I’ve done in the garden was to cut herbs and shake snow off branches. The whole family got in on the outdoor action: while I planted my seeds, The Man sculpted the hedges, and our awesome son moved 29 – 40 kilo bags of genuine Thunderbird manure from the driveway to the back of the garden. He also dug up one of the beds at the back for me. Planted:

  • “April in Paris” sweet peas in the rock garden. I normally have no luck with sweet peas, but I thought I would try. Again.
  • Three rows of Oregon Giant peas and one row each of Spanish Black and Amethyst radishes in bed 4. I hope to plant more peas, more radishes and some lettuce in a few weeks.
  • Favas in the open area in the back. Half of the seeds were from west coast seeds and half were seeds I saved myself.

Parts of our front yard really, REALLY need a serious make-over. The beds on either side of the driveway are fine, but parts of the front garden have gone wild. The two problem areas are (1) the front above the wall which contained a bunch of leggy heathers and ericas; and (2) the weedfest in the middle where there was an enormous tree.

Yesterday I dug up all the heathers, added some genuine thunderbird manure and seeded the area with giant poppies. I did a crappy job of drying the poppy heads over the winter and most of them moulded. Hopefully seeds that were left at the bottom of the bag are able to germinate and grow. If nothing comes up in the next few months, I may try some bush beans, marigolds or nasturtiums.

The plan for the weedfest was to plant favas, thinking that they would outgrow all the grasses. I was hoping to start to use that area to plant more vegetables in coming years because nothing says “we don’t have staff” than a row of bean tripods and a bunch of tomato supports. Yesterday I realized that there are too many spring bulbs coming up in that area (not like thats a bad thing), so I am going to relocate the bulbs after they bloom. I planted the favas in a bed in the back and am going to plant pole beans in the front instead.

Other garden-y stuff:

Indoor flower arranging. This winter I was inspired by the lush flower arrangements in the bathroom of my downtown office. One of the therapists from down the hall is truly talented: she brings in flowers, leaves and branches from her garden and makes incredible arrangements. This year I plan to do more of that myself. Right now I have branches of Forsythia and Cornelian Cherry about to bloom in my dining room (okay, three sticks in a jar doesn’t an arrangement make, but never mind), and I have cut some pink daphne branches for my bathroom.

New garlic variation. Just now, our neighbor dropped by with a few heads of garlic that he bought at the farmers market along with a dried garlic flower. He said that you roll the flower to release little pods that you could sprinkle on a salad or pasta. Although the flower looks totally dried out, the little pods are like mini cloves of garlic, and are quite moist and pungent. I don’t know at what stage they are dried – if it is when the flower first emerges from the scape or later. Since you have to cut the scape in order to get the most out of the bulb, it would seem to me that this may be a way to make the best of garlics than have been left to flower? Thanks Ray!

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My big farm hands holding the garlic heads and the dried garlic flower.

More veggies: This year my name finally moved up the waiting list to join the UBC Farm CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). $680 buys you 20 weeks of vegetable items (5-7 vegetables per week) plus a dozen eggs every second week. UBC Farm grows vegetables earlier, larger and more prolifically than I do despite being only two kilometres away, so I am looking forward to this.

Next: Raspberry cane rescue

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The daphne is finally large enough to cut branches to take inside.

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Go shake your branches NOW!

IMG_7801If you are reading this today (December 19) and live in the lower mainland, now is the time to get outside and shake your branches, hedges and small trees. Although the rain has melted much of the snow, many of the branches are heavily weighted down and may snap. At least that’s the way things are at my house.

I walked through the garden with an umbrella and a broom. Some of the smaller trees and hedges needed only a gentle shake to remove the snow. The large rhododendrons and the hemlock hedges required a stronger force; some of those branches were already bent to the ground under the snow. I tied up the flat-top hemlock hedge near the front door to weeks ago to keep the snow from splitting it, and it is still intact. If you have ever had a hedge damaged by heavy snow, you know what I am talking about.

My awesome kids have shovelled the entire block as well as our next door neighbors’ runway. (Thanks guys!) Now I am back inside the house drying off and charging up my devices for when the power goes off later today or tonight; I’m not a pessimist, it just seems to happen every time it snows or when the wind blows.

This Thursday is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, and a nadir for those of us who suffer from lack of light. This year’s winter coping strategy involves high intensity interval training (HIIT), minimal alcohol and foolish books, a strategy that seems to be working well so far.

Thanks so much for reading my blog this year (as infrequent as it has been) and I am sending you warm wishes for a wonderful Christmas and all the best for 2018.

 

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Late fall larch

The larch is at it’s peak: the needles have turned from green to gold and seem to give off their own light. When the sun shines, the rooms closest to the tree are filled with reflected gold.

Last week I ran into my gardening neighbor who asked me if I had “put my garden to bed”. I love the idea of my garden being “finished” for the year with all work completed, but this has never been my experience. Even in winter, there is always something that needs to be cared for. This isn’t a bad thing, as getting outside into the garden regularly is part of my winter survival strategy.

Garlic: I planted Russian red and Italian hard neck garlic at the end of October. I wish I had ordered more, as the amount I planted (3 heads of each) filled up exactly half a bed. I will likely plant lettuce in the rest of the bed in late spring.

Greens: Arugula, parsley, winter lettuce, chard, Italian endive and kale are all productive despite the cold weather. The self-seeding wild arugula that we ate all summer has died back, but the other variety -planted in careful rows mid summer – is thriving. Of the five types of kale, the ornamental purple, curly green, Siberian and lactinato kale are growing like crazy, while the red Russian is turning yellow. I have a new recipe book that favours lots of kale and crispy fried sage leaves, so am grateful to have an ample supply of both.

Goodbye rotted pile of wood: In September when I pumped water from the barrel at the side of the house to the irrigation barrels, I realised that the water wasn’t making it up to the back of the garden. I followed the pipe to investigate and behind the new compost bin/shed I found a large pile of wood stacked on top of the pipe, which had caused the elbow joint at the corner to disengage.

In the last three weeks we’ve pulled out all the wood, which included the remains of the old compost bin and the tree house, removed the nails, and neatly restacked the good wood in a better location. The rotted bits of wood are now stacked in the driveway for disposal (apologies to our neighbours).

End of the food composter: We’ve used a big black plastic city of Vancouver food composter in the back yard for just over a decade.  The bin was well used, but we could never seem to layer enough dry leaves and grass clippings between the kitchen waste so the decomposition process lacked mojo. We would have to layer the smelly sludge into the garden compost for an additional year to yield soil-quality compost.

Since the city now collects organic waste, it doesn’t feel necessary to sort our organic waste into what can be composted and what can’t (bones, fats, carbs, avocado pits and egg shells). As well, the food composter was moved a few times in the last year and the rodent-proof base was damaged. The plastic bin has joined the junk pile at the top of our driveway (again, apologies to our neighbors).

Festive greens: We are removing several large trees near the southern property line. One cypress died due to some root disease (says the arborist), and the other two trees are being removed because they shade the solar panels. This weekend I want to remove as much of their greenery as I can before the trees are gone. I am thinking of once again hosting a mid-morning, mid-week make-a-swag-and-drink-hot-cider event for all my unconventionally employed friends. (And for my one conventionally employed friend who reads this blog: I will make you a decoration for your door).

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2017 Wrap up

IMG_7232Many years I heard someone joke that Vancouver had only two seasons: “Wet” and “Roadwork”. I might suggest revising the two seasons to be “Wet” and “Parched” because this summer was the driest that I can remember. We had almost four months with very little rain, and it was the worst fire season ever. The plants and trees and animals suffered.

Although I didn’t make time to blog about the garden, I did spend lots of time there. So, here is the wrap up of this growing season.

(1) Bees.

This was a very tough year for the bees. In the spring we learned that our bee guy Bryn lost many of his hives over the winter. He worked hard at building up the strength of the existing hives and we were very happy to be able to host one in our garden. Unfortunately, at the first hive check-in, Bryn wasn’t able to find evidence of a queen (no larvae in the cells). He tried  a number of different things including replacing the queen and switching in some frames from other hives and by the end of the summer the hive was surviving, but not thriving. Although our hive didn’t produce enough honey to survive the upcoming winter, we were happy to learn that most of Bryn’s other hives did very well, so our bees (and us) will be benefiting from the excess honey from other hives.

(2) Things that did thrive: raspberries, favas, green beans, kale, fennel, endive, sunflowers and tomatoes. 

No secret, the raspberries are my favourites. This summer was a fabulous one for the berries and we are currently enjoying our third (small) harvest this year. I didn’t bother to make raspberry vodka, but instead froze the berries for fresh ice-cream during the winter.

Despite a frustratingly late spring that saw me replanting everything after it rotted or was eaten, our summer harvests were abundant and satisfying. We enjoyed food from our garden almost every day this summer. The kale and fennel only really seemed to take off when it became cooler, so we are looking forward to much more of those. Side note: this year the kale never became infested with aphids, so  hopefully we can enjoy more of the mature plants into the winter.

The Man gets the green thumb award: not only did we enjoy an enormous crop of tomatoes, but we are still enjoying his sunflowers. The ones in the back garden grew to over seven feet tall, and the dried seed heads are feeding the birds.

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(3) Lessons learned.

Don’t bother planting favas in the fall; wait until spring. When you plant the favas in the fall, they grow, they freeze, then rot. Then you plant them again in the spring. I’ve done this three years in a row. Late this summer I instead planted a cover crop in the designated bed and will dig it under and put the favas there in March.

Plant the zucchinis in direct sunlight. Despite last year’s big zucchini success, this year I managed to produce only four. I’m sure my zucchini-hating  family was delighted. The zucchinis and cucumbers were were shaded out by the bean teepee, which is why I think that they didn’t do well.

Buy the expensive garlic. In the fall of 2016 I cheaped out and bought garlic at one of the garden centres. I only ended up with about 10 heads at the end of the season, and the cloves were tiny and hard to peel. This year I ordered two types of garlic from West Coast Seeds which I will plant late October.

img_7239.jpg(4) Fun new project: shaping boxwoods

Five or six years ago I had to replace the lavender plants at the front of the garden with small boxwoods. This year they reached the size that I wanted, so I trimmed them into tidy round balls, which took me about a week and a half as I could only manage to do about three or four per day. It’s surprisingly easy to trim healthy boxwoods, and I experimented with two shaping methods: the flattop method and the beachball method.

a) The flattop method. Look at the boxwood and decide what size you want it to be. Trim the top of the boxwood down to a flat plane, to the final height you want your hedge. Trim the other four sides into a square-ish box. This gives you four vertical corners where the planes meet. Trim the top and bottom of the vertical edge under (cut off the corners of the box) and then round off any other greenery so that the bush becomes a round ball.

b) the beachball method. (this is easier) Look at the boxwood and imagine it as a beachball, with six equal sections starting from the middle top. Trim each section from the top to the bottom of the plant.

Ha – I make it sound easy, and it is. It just takes time. This fall and spring we need to tame some of our out of control front garden as well as some of the other hedges. It took a good six years to get our salal to grow, and now it won’t stop and is crowding out everything in the front. The main project for next summer will be to try to cultivate the front garden.

That’s it for today. Thanks for reading and enjoy the fall!

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Celebrating the Peak of Summer

This is the absolute high point of summer: a cloudless sunny Sunday afternoon spent under the shade of my apple tree. The fava beans and the poppies have finished and the apples are just starting to ripen. Rhododendrons are long gone, but the hydrangeas are enormous, the lavender is full of bees and the nasturtiums and dahlias are providing bursts of color. The leaves of the vine maples in the forest are still fresh and green and haven’t started to fade. Everything is very dry because it hasn’t rained for weeks, but there doesn’t seem to be widespread concern about this. (That I find odd, because a lack of rain makes me anxious.)

This summer my intention was to celebrate by doing one summery thing each day. I started to keep a list:

  • Drink coffee in the garden.
  • Pick raspberries for breakfast.
  • Pick raspberries for dessert.
  • Eat breakfast outside in pyjamas.
  • Water the garden in pyjamas.
  • Ride my bike everywhere.
  • Go to the farmers market.
  • Enjoy lunch on the deck.
  • Invite entire extended family over for brunch on the deck.
  • Dry clothes outside on the clothesline.
  • Pick fresh peas for dinner.
  • Eat a salad from the garden every day.
  • Plan meals around what is growing in the garden today.
  • Fresh herbs with everything!
  • Work outside.
  • Invite friends over for tea under the apple tree.
  • Invite friends over for Campari cocktails.
  • Eat dinner in the garden.
  • Do yoga in the garden.
  • Sleep outside in the tent.
  • Invite friends over for a glass of wine outside.
  • Light candle lanterns and talk late into the night.
  • Go on a late night walk through the garden with a flashlight…beware of the skunk!
  • Watch the hummingbirds.
  • Watch the bees.
  • Nap in the tent.
  • Ride bike to the farmers market.
  • Pick fresh flowers for the table.
  • Save poppy seeds.
  • Eat fava beans.
  • Grab handfuls of cilantro.
  • Drink wine while weeding.
  • Pick apples.
  • Pick more apples.
  • Walk down to the beach and have a picnic before the fireworks.
  • Water garden in the middle of the night.

At some point in the next few weeks, things will quietly turn towards fall. Until that time I am going to spend as much of my life outside as possible.

Enjoy summer……winter is coming. (ha ha Kinga and Risa)

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