A Red by Any Other Name

“Hey Mom, what’s your favourite colour?”

I heard this question often when my boys were young. I could never give them a definitive answer though. “It depends,” I would say. “The colours I like for my garden aren’t necessarily the same colours I like to wear, or the colours I like to decorate the house with.” Was I a bad Mom, because I wouldn’t play the what’s-your-favourite game?

Over the years I’ve thought more about this – I suspect one day I’ll have grandchildren who will no doubt ask, “What’s your favourite colour Grandma?” – and I want to have an answer for them. So I decided to abide by the old adage, ‘when in doubt, make a list’. I took inventory of the colours in my garden, the colours in my closet, and the colours in the house. I compared the 3 lists and noted they had but one colour in common – rich dark burgundy, so named for the red wines of Burgundy (region of France). I guess this must be my favourite colour!

Now apparently, one’s favourite colour says something about one’s disposition; for example, people who like blue are reputed to be reliable, responsible, honest and loyal. Those who favour green are supposedly generous, good listeners, and possess good judgement. But I could find no descriptions of people whose favourite colour is burgundy.

If you’ve read my posts on colour theory you know that burgundy is actually a very dark red, and according to colour psychology, people who like red are passionate, strong-willed, extroverted and confident. They are also controlling, quick-tempered, easily bored and impulsive. Honey, does this sound like me? Well, maybe when I was younger.

But my favourite colour isn’t red; it’s burgundy – not ordinary red, but very dark red. Perhaps I’m everything a red personality is – but darker?  Yikes, how sinister! Upon further research I eventually found a number of references describing the ‘burgundy personality’. Burgundy is, apparently, a well-disciplined red. A mature, sophisticated red. Like red wine, I guess we get better with age….

Beautiful, bodacious burgundy - my favourite colour. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Beautiful, bodacious burgundy – my favourite colour. Photos: Sue Gaviller

Today is Valentine’s Day, an appropriate day to talk about red – and a fine time to savour a glass of Burgundy with someone you love. So in the spirit of Valentine’s Day and all things lovey-dovey, I leave you with this little piece of wisdom:

“Love does not consist in gazing at each other.....

“Love does not consist in gazing at each other…..

but in looking outward together in the same direction” ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery ~

…but in looking outward together in the same direction” ~Antoine de Saint-Exupery

A really good smooch works too. Mourning Dove photos: Pat Gaviller

A really good smooch works too. Mourning Dove photos: Pat Gaviller

Happy Valentine’s Day,


Let’s Talk About the 3 R’s

We all know the importance of the 3 r’s – readin’, ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic. No not those 3 r’s. Reduce, re-use, and recycle? No not those either. I’m referring to the 3r’s of romance – Rubies, Roses and Red Wine. Ah yes, those 3 r’s. Today is Valentine’s Day, so let’s talk about………..


They say diamonds are a girl’s best friend, but I don’t think I agree. Men get to have dog as best friend – I’d rather have a dog than diamonds. I guess I’m just not that into diamonds, or any jewelry for that matter. I’ve never been the kind of gal who surreptitiously points out to my husband around anniversaries, Christmas, Valentine’s Day etc., the beautiful expensive pieces showcased in jewelry store windows, in the hope that one might find its way into a box with my name on it. Indeed the jewelry he’s given me over the years, has had sentiment as big as (or bigger than) the price tag. So it is with rubies – they have sentimental value for me much more than monetary value. There is of course, a story here…………..

The first year we were dating, my husband gave me a single red rose for Valentine’s Day, along with a charming card with some amorous message in it (which I really can’t remember). I do however remember how he signed it; Happy Valentine’s Day, Love Len………and in brackets he wrote, “Sorry I couldn’t find any rubies.” The reference to the sparkling red gemstones was from a story we’d read – about a couple who out of necessity, held their nuptials out on the range, exchanging their impromptu but heartfelt vows on horseback. The gentleman (okay he was more of a rogue) had no ring to give his new bride, so he reached into his pocket and pulled out a small handful of rubies. He gently placed them in his wife’s hand, and with a twinkle in his eye said, “Every woman should get rubies on her wedding day.”

Oh be still my beating heart. The mention of rubies (clearly a symbol of commitment) in this first Valentine’s card seemed strangely farsighted given the early stage of our courtship. It was also weirdly incongruous coming from a man who fervently fought tradition. Seems he’d been pierced by cupid’s arrow, though he didn’t know it at the time – he didn’t stand a chance.

And so it was that several years later, on another February 14th (after a year or so of cohabiting, during which time he discovered that everything he feared about marriage and commitment had already come to pass………..and he’d survived), I came home to find on the kitchen table: a dozen red roses, a card, and a bottle of Sebastiani Cabernet (our wine savvy in those years, was as limited as our budget). The message inside the card was sweet and romantic, but again the only detail I remember was how it was signed; Happy Valentine’s Day, Love Len………and in brackets, “This time it comes with the promise of rubies.” The rest as they say is history, but my wedding band is indeed adorned with several rubies.


“I’d rather have roses on my table than diamonds ’round my neck.” ~ Emma Goldman ~

For me, as a horticulturist and garden designer, a bouquet of roses (or a bouquet of anything) is akin to the gift of jewelry. Nothing warms my heart more than a big bunch of flowers, whether from a friend, a dinner guest, my sons, or in particular, my husband. While he’s often given me roses for Valentine’s Day, he’s also been known to defy convention (surprise, surprise) and purposefully buy a very different type of arrangement; “Everyone gets roses for Valentine’s Day,” he’ll say. “You deserve something special.” Nice sentiment. But honestly, either works for me – I love the thoughtful break from tradition, but I can’t deny I also love the traditional dozen red roses; their softly scented, velvety petals just ooze romance. Unfortunately though, they don’t always have a lot of staying power – the trick is to make a good selection when buying them. Here’s a great list of what to look for: How to Buy Roses.

Roses have different meanings for different people – for my sister and her husband, exchanging a single long stem red rose was an essential part of their wedding ceremony. It was a gesture the groom requested as a way of honouring his mom who had passed away many years earlier. In the years since her death, a pretty red rose-bush which grew alongside the driveway of his childhood home, and had bloomed profusely under his mother’s care, had long since stopped blooming. But in the months leading up to their wedding, it burst into bloom – to them it was a sure sign that their upcoming marriage had his mother’s soundest blessing.

Red Wine

In the early years, red wine was our beverage of choice. I don’t mean it was the only liquid we drank – we didn’t drink it in the morning instead of coffee, or fill water bottles with it to go on a hike or to the gym – I just mean if we were going to indulge in a ‘fermented beverage’, we were likely to choose an Old World red; maybe a Burgundy or a Bordeaux blend.

Red wine has played a part in many of our celebrations over the years – anniversaries, birthdays, just-because-days, but the one that comes to mind is an early spring hike along the river below Elbow falls, many years ago. Len carried a knapsack in those days, the contents of which always intrigued me – his wallet, cigarettes, herbal tea, other ‘herbals’, a paperback or two (usually sci-fi), sometimes a magazine (Esquire or Omni), snack food of some kind, a Swiss army knife, a windbreaker, and anything else he thought he might need on a given day. This day he added: a loaf of still-warm French bread, a brick of cheese, and a bottle of red wine.

We walked along the river a ways and found a warm sunny rock to picnic on. We tore pieces of fresh bread off the loaf, cut cheese with the knife he carried in his pack, and drank wine out of plastic cups. It was the perfect picnic, and a fine way to enjoy a bottle of red – soaking up the warm spring sun, until concern we might get caught in rush hour traffic urged us to head back into the city.

The Three B’s

It would be unfair and insensitive if I didn’t take a moment to acknowledge the 3 B’s: Broken-hearted, Between-loves and By-choice Single – if one of these describes your current situation, you might decide to boycott Valentine’s Day altogether. I don’t blame you – we’ve all been there, or will be, at some point in our lives. I know someone who was dumped on Valentine’s Day – by text, after paying for dinner at an expensive restaurant. Honey you can definitely pass on Valentine’s Day for a while.

If truth be told I wasn’t very lucky in love before I met my husband – of course in retrospect I realize that some of it had more to do with bad choices than bad luck. But oddly enough I never disliked Valentine’s Day; maybe the memories from my childhood gave it meaning beyond the syrupy romance that greeting card companies, diamond merchants and chocolatiers thrust upon us.

I remember in grade school we’d make pretty Valentine crafts – heart-shape cards made with red and pink construction paper, lacy white doilies, and glitter paint. And on Valentine’s afternoon, we’d have a class party – with snacks and games and the ritual exchange of simple valentine’s cards where no one got left out. There were treats that our Mom’s had baked – cupcakes with pink icing and candy hearts or heart-shaped cookies with red sprinkles. And each child would go home with a little gift bag filled with red cinnamon hearts, red and white jelly beans and ju-jube hearts, and red foil-wrapped chocolate hearts. To this day I still make up bags-full-of-goodies for my two grown sons.

It’s more than that though. Valentine’s Day is about the promise of something – if not rubies, then perhaps future romantic possibilities, and if not that then most surely, spring. Yes my friends, spring – it’s around this time every year that the fog of winter hibernation begins to lift; the days are noticeably longer, the sun perceptibly warmer, and spring becomes more than a distant probability. It has become a promise. The promise of spring, to a child, or a gardener, a grieving grown-up, or a happy lover, is something to celebrate – indeed it feels very much like hope.

So to everyone – married or single, happy or sad, young, old and everything in between, breathe deeply the air of promise…….and have a very Happy Valentine’s Day.


How Lovely Are Thy Branches

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
How lovely are thy branches.
Not only green when summer’s here
But in the coldest time of year.
O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
How lovely are thy branches.

                                                ~ Author Unknown ~

Nothing says Yuletide quite like evergreen boughs, whether still on the tree, or as part of some other seasonal ornamentation. Almost every home at this time of year has the requisite evergreen wreath, swag, garland, or container arrangement. I myself dabble only in the latter; the seasonal container.

I didn’t always participate in this Christmas container frenzy – mixed evergreen branches billowing over the tops of pretty pots, complete with festive balls and bows. It all seemed a bit artsy-crafty to me. But I had to admit, a tasteful arrangement could enhance the overall appeal of a winter landscape. In time I learned to embrace my “inner Martha”, though I soon discovered that arranging evergreen boughs in a winter container required a different skill-set than designing a landscape, a garden, or a summer container arrangement. No this required a florist’s flair, a talent this garden designer is decidedly lacking.

My early attempts weren’t particularly spectacular – spruce and juniper branches harvested from trees and shrubs in my garden, with a few dogwood stems sprinkled in. They were a bit drab actually – not surprising since many spruce and juniper species tend to lose colour saturation in our very cold winters, becoming dark and dull. In containers their presentation is therefore lacklustre. Pine however, stays delightfully green, cedar too – I tried those, but apparently any old pine or cedar won’t do. My garden gatherings of stiff upright mugo pine branches and sprigs of Emerald Green cedar just didn’t do the trick. Something with a more draping habit was needed.

Eventually, about the 23rd of December one year, knowing we’d be entertaining family the following night, I decided I should really purchase some suitable greenery. I live only a few minutes away from several greenhouses, so off I went in search of greener greens. Fortunately, since it was so close to Christmas, everything was discounted – which also meant of course, that selection was limited. There was still some fir to be had, and one scruffy bundle of pine. A gentlemanly sales attendant scrounged up a few cedar boughs for me. I needed something taller too, for height and structure. All that was left was some twiggy, tawny-hued huckleberry branches – this would have to do I guess. I plopped my greenhouse finds into my containers, fussed with them a bit, then fussed some more. The end result was… well, acceptable.

I continued with these last-minute arrangements for a number of years – they were attractive enough, but I certainly wouldn’t say I’d found my calling. And no festive balls or bows – this was definitely still too Martha Stewart for me.

I guess we must have had mild autumn temperatures that extended well into December, or maybe very timely Chinooks, because in all those years I whipped up my eleventh-hour Christmas containers, not once was the soil in my ceramic pots frozen… until last year. This was the year I decided to shop early for Christmas greens so I’d have lots to choose from. I was like a kid in a candy store. Beautiful bunches of fir and hemlock, soft pine, lacy cedar and elegant cypress, rich red dogwood stems, pretty berried branches and crisp white birch branches – I bought it all, hundreds of dollars worth.

The plants from my summer arrangements were still in the pots, covered in snow (winter had come early) and had to be removed before I could do my holiday arrangement. “No problem,” I thought, “I’ll get my trowel and quickly pop out the dead plants.”  Clunk.  Metal hit ice.  Hmmm.  “No problem,” I thought,  “I’ll get some warm water and melt the frozen soil and then with my trowel pop out the dead plants.” Scrape, scrape, scrape – the warm water thawed enough soil for me to remove about a teaspoonful. More warm water, more scraping, another teaspoonful of soil removed. This was not going to work. Hmmm. “No problem,” I thought. I went inside and got my blow-dryer. “I’ll blow hot air on the frozen soil to melt it and then with my trowel I’ll pop out the dead plants.” Whirrrrr. Whirrrrr. Whirrrrr. There I was sitting on my front steps, in sub-zero temperatures, bundled up like a snow-suited child, attempting to melt a huge block of ice-soil with a blow-dryer. The neighbours must have had a good chuckle at the sight.  Unfortunately, the hot air wasn’t making any difference. My hands were freezing. Feeling foolish and very frustrated, I gave up and went inside.

“How’s it going out there?” asked my husband as I came in the front door. The look on my face answered his question. Not well. What was I going to do with all the beautiful greenery I’d purchased? There was no way those pots were coming inside to thaw – they were way too heavy. When I first bought them I was concerned that, being such pretty pots, someone might walk off with them – so I filled the bottom half with sand and gravel. Nope, nobody was going to move those babies – ever.

“I have an idea” Hubby said. I didn’t want to hear his idea. I wanted to pout and throw a hissy-fit. But I remembered what I’d always told my kids when they were young and something would go wrong: “You need to get out of flip-out mode and get into problem-solving mode,” I’d chirp. So I listened to my husband’s idea. We had some reasonably attractive plastic pots on the back patio – they were painted black but finished to look like burnished bronze. While the soil in these pots was also frozen solid, they weren’t so heavy and could easily be carried inside to thaw. It was a good idea; better than anything I had come up with.

It took at least 2 days for the soil in the plastic pots to thaw, but once it was workable I went to work poking the myriad of branches into the soil. First the birch branches for height and structure. Then the bendy cedar and cypress boughs which would drape over the edges. Then the more rigid fir and hemlock branches, and finally the dogwood stems and red-berried branches for colour. But still no festive balls or bows.

We carried the two pots outside and placed them in front of the unusable ceramic pots. They looked pretty impressive – impressively large anyways; so large that the evergreen boughs impeded access somewhat to the front door. Perhaps I’d purchased more container ingredients than I needed.

This year I got smart – I made sure I removed the summer arrangements from my containers well before freeze-up. I also removed about a third of the soil so I could add fresh topsoil in which to arrange my evergreens and accoutrements.

A few weeks ago I espied some pretty potted arrangements when driving by a large department store (which I shall not name because I don’t want to give them free advertising). What caught my eye in these holiday arrangements was, I’m embarrassed to say, the beautiful copper-coloured festive balls and bows. I couldn’t stop thinking about these lovely rich-hued ornaments and visualizing how pretty they’d look in my earthy-coloured ceramic pots against the café-au-lait colour of my house and the chocolatey colour of my front door and wrought iron railings. So I went back and bought them.

Originally the idea was to take everything out of the store-bought plastic pots and rearrange in my own pots. However, the plastic pots fit nicely into the mouth of my tear-drop-shaped containers – so there they stayed. I know, I know, for a garden designer this was shamefully lazy, cheating even. It never pays to cheat though, because the next day all the evergreens in one of the store-bought arrangements had turned brown, despite watering as directed. I returned it to the store-which-won’t-be-named, and to their credit, they happily exchanged it for one that still looked alive.

The weather turned nasty a day or two later and my holiday arrangements were soon covered in snow – it was very pretty and Christmassy, but the evergreen boughs turned suspiciously crispy in the frigid cold. I had a feeling they wouldn’t look so good when the temperatures rose again with the next Chinook. Indeed when the Arctic front blew out and a Chinook blew in, my evergreens became everbrown. Sigh. It was now past the middle of December and I was running out of time – and patience. I brought the pots inside and tried to pull out the dead stuff – they wouldn’t budge. I examined the centre of the arrangements to see what was holding everything so tight. It was florist’s foam. Very frozen florist’s foam. Sigh….

After a day or two the foam thawed. I poked some fresh pine branches and cedar boughs into it and some reddish twiggy things from an indoor vase which I bundled together to add height. My backyard containers hadn’t been cleaned out yet and still housed clumps of coppery sedge (Carex comans ‘Bronco’) – it was dead but still had some colour and made a pretty addition to my Christmas arrangement. A few sprigs of blue spruce, the copper ornaments from the store-bought pots, and my holiday containers were done. It was night-time when I placed my newly created evergreen arrangements into the ceramic pots – from what I could see in the dark they looked okay; better than the prearranged ones I’d purchased and certainly better than any of my previous attempts.

The following morning, seeing that it had snowed over night, I offered to relieve Hubbie of front-walk-shoveling duty.  My new Christmas containers were dusted in snow. The now white-capped copper ornaments sparkled in the sun.  As I moved down the walkway piling snow this way and that, I looked back towards the house and noticed that from this vantage point the black plastic pots were visible above the ceramic pots. “That looks tacky,” I said to myself. Thinking I hadn’t placed them properly, I attempted to adjust them, but to no avail. I guess the fit wasn’t as good as I thought when I first popped them in there. Sigh. My work was still not done.

I considered my options and determined they were limited. The foam was frozen again so I couldn’t just poke more drapey branches in. I thought about taking the foam out of the plastic pots and placing the whole arrangement right inside the ceramic pots, but one of the chunks of foam had split in half when I was manhandling it trying to remove dead evergreens. I was afraid without the pot to hold the foam together that everything might fall apart. I decided my best option was to drill holes through the side of the pot into the frozen foam and stick more evergreen boughs in the holes. My husband brought me his battery operated drill and showed me how to use it. Bzzzz. Bzzzz. Bzzzz. There I was again, sitting on my front steps, in sub-zero temperatures, bundled up like a snow-suited child, this time drilling holes into my pots – more entertainment for my neighbours I’m sure. I didn’t last long in the cold though, so I brought the pots inside and finished my drilling and poking in the basement. I soon became very adept with the drill, exchanging drill bits from small (to puncture the pot) to large (to fit branches in) with a few quick flicks of the wrist. That’s right, this girly girl was using power tools. For some reason Hubbie found this very amusing, attractive even.

So in the end I did create some not-too-bad looking Christmas arrangements….

Christmas container - RChristmas container - LMy latest container attempts  – I don’t have the flair of a florist, but aren’t the colours pretty?                 Photos: Sue Gaviller

So now that y’all know what not to do when creating your Christmas arrangements, it’s only fair I provide some examples of really well done containers. Deborah Silver, owner of Detroit Garden Works, creates stunning arrangements and shares some of her secrets on her blog Dirt Simple (check out her 3-part tutorial: Sticking It: A Foam Story, The Center Of Interest: A Short Story and The Details: A Story Board).

Just look at these – are they not perfect?

DS Containers 2Photo: Dirt Simple
DS Containers 3Photo: Dirt Simple
DS Containers 5Photo: Dirt Simple
DS Containers 6Photo: Dirt Simple

Well folks it’s December 22nd and despite my best attempts, it seems that my Christmas containers are once again last-minute – but this time they come with festive balls and bows.

 Merry Christmas to All and to All a Good Night,

What Would Georgia Think?

A year ago, in honour of Georgia O’Keeffe’s 125th birthday, I published a post dedicated to ‘the flower’ – a lighthearted romp through the sex life of a plant. While Georgia herself never admitted to deliberately eroticizing flowers, it has oft been assumed that her floral paintings allude to human external sex organs. However, her aim was simply to make manifest that which is often taken for granted – in this case the collection of details that comprise a flower. There is an undeniable, intrinsic sensuality to a plant’s reproductive parts; lush velvety petals, silky filaments and fuzzy anthers, tubular style and bulbous stigma – is it any surprise then that this would be apparent in Georgia’s work? She just painted what she saw.

If I could paint I would paint like Georgia. But alas painting is not my forte – I can slap paint on a wall if necessary, and as a child I could stick my chubby little hands in a jar of paint, smear it all over a piece of paper and say “Look Mommy, art!”, but that’s the extent of my painting ability. However, I do believe that it is ‘delighting in the details’ that fuels my design work, and more recently, my (attempted) photography. Years ago I attended a garden photography workshop with renowned garden photographer, Allan Mandell. One of the first things he taught was that everything is significant to the camera – details the eye overlooks, a photograph exposes. At the time, he was referring to unwanted details – a garden hose, gum wrapper, spent bloom or dead leaf, that mar our photographic images, but it obviously refers to the beautiful, interesting details as well.

So today, as another tribute to Ms. O’Keeffe, I offer you my own ‘floral paintings’. Not real paintings of course, but digital paintings. If you’re familiar with Photoshop, you know that it includes various paintbrush tools that allow one to alter the appearance of a photo with a series of ‘brushstrokes’ (mouse strokes?), so it resembles a painting – maybe a watercolour, or oil, or pastel, charcoal, ink, wax crayon etc..  I’ve chosen to leave some areas of the photos untouched in order to accentuate certain details – stamens or carpels, maybe a ruffle or petal edge, a droplet of water, or even an entire blossom. The result is a bit of a hybrid but my hope is that you too may ‘delight in the details’.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Paeonia tenuifolia. Photo: Sue Gaviller


Paeonia ‘Unknown Soldier’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Iris germanica. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Malus  'Kelseyi'

Malus ‘Kelsey’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Prunus triloba multiplex. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Prunus triloba multiplex. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Hemerocallis 'Chicago Antique Tapestry'. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Hemerocallis ‘Chicago Antique Tapestry’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Bleeding heart resampled 2

Lamprocapnos spectabilis. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Echinacea purpurea 'Magnus'. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Echinacea purpurea ‘Magnus’. Photo: Sue Gaviller


Rosa 'Morden Sunrise'. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Rosa ‘Morden Sunrise’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

siberian iris 2

Iris sibirica ‘Roanoke’s Choice’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Perusing this morning’s edition of Swerve magazine, I discovered an article exploring the legitimacy of digitally produced art – this is timely, I thought. Calgary freelance journalist and travel blogger Kim Gray poses the question, “Is digital art real art?” and discovers there’s more support for this ‘art form’ than one might gather. The consensus it seems, is that digitally created art does have validity – it is indeed a creative process, but with a different medium and using different tools. Traditional art on the other hand is seen as perhaps having more ‘soul’ since it involves actually getting one’s hands dirty.

I can live with that.

But I can’t help wondering………………………….“What would Georgia think?”

Artistically yours,

© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Messy Mingling or Outmoded Massing?

A day or two ago I was sitting at my desk mulling over which of several blog-posts-in-progress I would work on, when a colleague emailed me a link to the latest post on thinkinGardens. Happy for the distraction, I clicked on the link. If you’ve ever visited this website you know the articles are always thought-provoking and articulately presented – indeed the contributing writers are the intelligentsia of garden design.

This particular post was Part 1 of an arranged discourse, a debate if you will, between Thomas Rainer and Noel Kingsbury, discussing mass planting vs. intermingled planting and which represented the more sound ecology, thus the better design choice. I’d certainly been aware of an apparent paradigm shift – from Piet Oudolf’s compositions of huge single-species drifts, to the new intermingled compositions now being espoused by same designer – but I never really gave it much thought. While I know, as a designer, that it’s important to stay abreast of current trends, I’ve always been of the opinion that good horticulture and good design are timeless and don’t depend on adherence to design trends.

However, after reading Thomas Rainer’s opening argument (excerpted from a previous post he’d published in August), I decided I oughta take this matter more seriously. Judging by the ensuing comments, some of which were very long and impassioned, I figured this must be some really important stuff being discussed here – I’d better jump on one of these bandwagons lest I get left behind. Thing is, I’m not much of a wagon jumper. I’m more of a fence sitter. I know, I know, there’s some old adage that sitting on the fence means having one foot in Heaven and one in Hades – I believe what it really means though, is that I see both sides of the story. Initially I was going to leave a comment with my own thoughts on the matter, but the comment thread was already long and cumbersome. Besides, who am I to argue with, or agree with, or even comment on, the ideas put forward by these big garden thinkers. But comment I will….

Thomas presented a very balanced argument in his article, and I found myself nodding in agreement throughout the eloquently written piece. He suggested that both aesthetics – mass planting and intermingled planting – can have a place in good garden design, since both are seen in nature. And I agree – I think. I am fortunate to live only a few blocks from Nose Hill Park, a huge expanse of natural mixed-prairie grassland. I thought about the masses of native Rosa woodsii, Elaeagnus commutata and Symphoricarpos occidentalis growing in the ravines or along the slopes, and snorted at the thought that anything might intermingle within their dense colonies – a clear-cut case of nature’s mass planting. On another hillside nearby, numerous native grasses, as well as Campanula rotundifolia, Gallairdia aristia, Erigeron caespitosus, Linum lewisii and many other native species, comfortably intermingle. So I guess I must be in Thomas’s not-one-nor-the-other-but-both camp.

I called my sister, hoping she would have some photos to illustrate these points – though not a horticulturist by profession, she has a profound interest in native plants and certainly knows them better than I. We talked about nature’s areas of seeming monoculture and the more we talked the more evident it became that things are not necessarily as they appear – that the forest of evergreens we see along the drive into the mountains may appear to be a single type of tree, but in fact more likely consists of spruce, fir and hemlock. Or that colonizing shrubs like our numerous native rose species may obscure, but not necessarily exclude, smaller flora. Or that it’s possible for the aforementioned roses to coexist in an intermingling relationship with some other equally effective competitor, say Cornus sericea. I remembered a recent post about a cross-Canada road trip, in which I wrote: “I am fascinated by the changing ecosystems or ‘biomes’ as we move from west to east – from Grassland to Parkland to Boreal Forest … as gardeners, landscape designers and horticulturists, we can take many lessons from the natural rock formations and forestation that Mother Nature presents – the way she mass plants her trees and understory, the large areas of perceived monoculture masking the plant diversity that lies therein. Indeed this should be our template.” Hmmm.

Pat started going through her photos as we spoke – she’ll jump at any excuse to do so. A while later she sent a few to me in an email:

“Hi Sue”, she wrote. “Here is one example of both – in my mind. I don’t think Mother Nature likes to be pinned down….

“As the snow recedes high in the mountain meadows, one of the first flowers to appear, especially in avalanche tracts, is the yellow glacier lily – Erythronium grandiflorum. They are quite beautiful en masse and I think they are a great example of a mass planting. However if you look closely, you can see a few small white flowers in amongst them. They are the other herald of spring in the mountains (and most everywhere in Canada for that matter) – the ‘spring beauty’, in this case the Western Spring Beauty, Claytonia lanceolata. This small white flower also emerges as the snow melts and it too can be found en masse, but here is found ‘intermingling’ in a mass planting of glacier lilies – if one looks closely enough.”

Nicely put Sis – thanks.

Erythronium grandiflorum

Looking up the avalanche tract towards the mountain top, a mass of Erythronium grandiflorum in the forefront. Photo: Pat Gaviller

A closer view reveals bits of white amid the yellow. Photo: Pat GAviller

A closer view reveals bits of white amid the yellow. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Zoomed in further ones sees that Claytonia lanceolata grows amongst the Erythronium grandiflorum. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Zoomed in further ones sees that Claytonia lanceolata grows amongst the Erythronium grandiflorum. Photo: Pat Gaviller

evergreen mass

A quick glance might suggest this mass of evergreens is all one type of tree, but the greenery on the mountainside includes western red cedar, western white pine, lodgepole pine, western hemlock, interior Douglas fir, western larch & hybrid white spruce (Picea glauca x engelmannii).
Photo: Pat Gaviller

Alpine meadows are a classic example of plants intermingling in nature. Here one lone Anemone occidentalis blooms alongside Claytonia lanceolata and emerging Antennaria lanata foliage.Photo: Pat Gaviller

Alpine meadows are a classic example of plants intermingling in nature. Here a lone clump of Anemone occidentalis blooms alongside Claytonia lanceolata and emerging Antennaria lanata foliage.
Photo: Pat Gaviller

Today I returned to thinkinGardens to read Noel Kingsbury’s response. He too made some valid points, one of which was the very thing my sister and I had discussed relating to monoculture – that “often what appears to be monocultures are not”.

So does this mean then, that I’ve switched camps – that I’ve now bought into Mr. Kingsbury’s intermingling perspective? Maybe. Well, no not really. It’s true one would be hard pressed to find a true monoculture in nature. But mass planting doesn’t equal monoculture – there are mass plantings in nature, and intermingled plantings… and intermingled mass plantings, and massed intermingled plantings. How’s that for sitting on the fence? But there’s more.

Rainer also points out the potential for chaotic and badly executed compositions when using an intermingled approach, and both writers acknowledged the need for informed plant choices if this approach is to succeed. This is of course key – one must know and understand the growth and reproductive habits of any given plant, lest some garden residents crowd others, or shade them, or outcompete them in some way or another. Come to think of it there are plants that would absolutely not fit into an intermingled planting scheme – they would very quickly dominate the composition and begin to mass themselves regardless of the designer’s intent… and it would be completely unnatural to insist that they do otherwise. Noel speaks of “managing competition” and admits that it “requires plant knowledge and experience”. But why, if creating a natural ecosystem is the goal, would “managing competition” even need mention. The bottom line is, the old mass-planting design model and the new intermingling approach both require harnessing nature, which is fine, but obviously neither can claim to be a completely natural design strategy. Which is more natural?  Who knows?  And does it really matter?

So I guess I’m with Thomas here. This where I often stand on many issues – in the middle, on balanced ground. And to be fair, even Noel admitted there was a place for “moments of massing” within an intermingled design. Maybe the two are more in agreement than it first seemed.

I read through the comments made in response to both Rainer’s and Kingsbury’s articles and there were other interesting viewpoints as well, for example, and I’m paraphrasing:

  • garden design doesn’t need to perfectly imitate nature’s design.
  • it doesn’t matter if you mass or intermingle as long as native plants are used.
  • we are losing species at an alarming rate and garden design must be part of the solution to this.
  • what we do in our gardens isn’t going save the planet, the bigger picture is more important.

I agree, in part, with all of these positions – no, our garden designs don’t need to be completely “natural”, yes native plant material should comprise a portion of our garden compositions, yes species loss is a concern and should be taken into account when choosing plants, particularly to ensure that pollinators are encouraged, and no the fate of the planet isn’t going to be played out in the garden. Our responsibility as gardeners and garden designers is to create healthy, sustainable ecosystems that are functional and aesthetically pleasing (this is indubitably subjective).

For me, nothing has changed. I’ve always used a mixed approach, with much of the massing occurring as groundcover to create a sort of “negative space”, and the larger plants occupying the positive space – some intermingled, some massed. I’ve never used mass plantings to the extent Piet Oudolf did (though I have to admit I find the huge masses of colour and texture to be breathtaking), and I don’t intend to use exclusively intermingled plantings just because it’s the latest trend. I will continue to design the way I always have, deciding to plant what, where and how-many, based on the site, the plant and my client’s needs. To me this is good design.

Now go mingle or mass or whatever it is you do….

Til next time,

© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Princess Pepper’s Adventure – Part 3 The Conclusion

We sat at the red light for what seemed like hours, sweltering in the heat, holding our breath and praying that the Little Red Wagon would hang on for just a few minutes longer. Miraculously she did – the temperature gauge needle was still in the red zone, the engine light was still on, but the Little Red Wagon (heretofore referred to as the LRW) kept ticking. The traffic light finally turned green, we pulled through the intersection and started increasing speed – little by little the needle moved back towards normal temperature range. Whew!

We knew this was only a temporary reprieve and we couldn’t continue with the 2 hour drive north to Georgian Bay. A few kilometres up the road, my husband noticed a Napa Autoclinic – on the opposite side of the road of course. Not knowing how far we’d have to go before there would be an exit, he made a U-turn right there on the highway – yeah I know it’s illegal, not to mention dangerous, but desperate times call for desperate measures and luckily there was no oncoming traffic.

While hubby went in to beg the mechanics for a spot in their queue, Pepper and I got out of the car and sought shade under some large canopy trees beside the parking lot. The heat was almost unbearable, even in the shade, especially after having been in the car with the heat blasting. A few minutes later, my husband came out and informed me they were able to look at the car right away. Thankfully the waiting room was air-conditioned. A fellow that looked like Bruce Dern (albeit younger and leaner) was sitting in the waiting room and informed us there was a cold water dispenser in the corner. We retrieved Pepper’s dish from the car and gave her some water, which she drank eagerly……………then promptly started vomiting, all over the carpet runner. “I’m so sorry”, I apologized.

“No worries,” a young mechanic assured me. “I’ll just clean it with the power washer,” and he yanked up the carpet and took it out to the shop.

“Could this day get any worse?” my husband lamented.

I was terrified that Pepper was suffering from heat stroke, knowing that vomiting was one of the early symptoms.  I text-messaged my sister, the vet (also the bride-to-be). Were there any other tell-tale signs, Dr. Pat wanted to know.  I responded that no there weren’t, and she seemed to be settling now that she was out of the heat – lying down, calm but alert. I remembered that in the winter, if she ate snow on an empty stomach, she’d immediately throw up. It occurred to me that the water we’d given her was likely very cold and perhaps the cause of Pepper’s stomach woes. Dr. Pat suspected this was likely the case, but recommended we monitor her closely for the next little while. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before Pepper was behaving quite normally again, sniffing at everything in the waiting room, including ‘Bruce Dern’ – luckily he was a dog-lover and didn’t mind.

I too was feeling cooler and calmer, though I was really concerned about the LRW – what had I done to her when I let her roll down a hill and into a big ‘ol rock? Anxiously awaiting word about her condition, we saw one of the mechanics from the shop open the glass door into the reception area. For a second I felt like I was watching a TV show where the surgeon, still clad in his OR scrubs, enters the waiting room and viewers try to determine from his expression whether the news is good or bad. The mechanic nonchalantly got a drink of water, apparently unaware of our expectant stares – when he finally looked our way he said, “Oh, didn’t they tell you?”

“Tell us what?” we asked in unison. The mechanic went on to explain that as a result of the previous day’s impact, the radiator had been pushed back such that it was in contact with the cooling fan wires, and literally fried the wires. The workaround was to replace the wires and re-route them so they were no longer in contact with the radiator. There were several guys in the waiting room at this point and they all nodded enthusiastically, agreeing that yes this explanation and the ensuing fix, made sense. Now all we had to do was wait for the bill – the trip was already costing more than we’d budgeted (it never occurred to us how very expensive gas would get the further we got from Alberta).

Meanwhile ‘Bruce Dern’ kept the mood light with his entertaining stories. The remaining water in Pepper’s bowl had warmed to room temperature and she was able to drink it and keep it all down. A few minutes later we saw the LRW drive out of the shop and into the parking lot. Hubby suggested we offer the staff some of the fresh fruit we’d picked up earlier. While he paid the bill (which was very affordable), I went to the car and retrieved the basket of juicy peaches – remarkably, they were still acceptably cool. So with peaches and smiles all ‘round, the friendly helpful staff at the Autoclinic of Flamborough, in Millgrove Ontario, wished us well, and we were off.

“That was relatively painless,” I thought to myself, as we continued our drive north. We had been lucky………….in so many ways. It seems the ‘road-trip gods’ were smiling upon us – but not without first having a little fun with us. We made good time after that, until we were about 45 minutes from our destination. Road construction had reduced the two lane highway to one lane. Since southbound traffic was much heavier than northbound traffic, we were stopped for ten minutes, maybe more, while oncoming traffic was allowed through – idling in traffic on a scorching hot day, obsessively watching the temperature gauge.  But she held steady, even with the air conditioning on.

When we finally reached the shores of Georgian Bay, I wanted to laugh, cry, jump for joy………..but it was still too damn hot. It was good to be here though, where we would finally stay in one place for more than a day or two. Dad had ordered Chinese food in honour of our arrival. We ate, drank, laughed and had those amazing butter tarts for dessert. Then we recounted our tale – it was the first of many times the tale would be told.

Dad, AKA Dr. Ed, checked out my various scrapes and bumps and marveled that I hadn’t been more seriously hurt. He and his wife were most gracious hosts. They had gone to extraordinary efforts – to host my sister’s wedding, as well as housing numerous out-of-towners. We stayed in one of the spare rooms on the lower level of their walk-out home. The shore was less than 100 feet away and we could hear the sound of the waves and see the moonlit path across the water from our window. I was reminded how much I missed living on the water. Pepper on the other hand was wary of this great big ‘water dish’, but she was happy for the very plush wall-to-wall carpet throughout the house – she settled in so well that at times I forgot she was there.

The stifling heat finally lifted the day before the wedding, making the rehearsal comfortable and uncomplicated. That evening, at the rehearsal dinner, was the first time since arriving in town that I’d seen many of my family members. My brothers and step-brothers and nephews are all big strong guys – delighted as I was to see them, their big bear hugs usually elicited an “ow” from me. I was still pretty sore. The day of the wedding dawned warm and breezy, the blue of the sky matched only by its reflection in the water – a lovely backdrop for a lovely wedding. The only small glitch was when Princess Ellen, the flower girl, didn’t want to walk through the ‘archway’ created by the branches of two birch trees. She stood there shaking her head, lower lip quivering, the way only a 3-yr-old can do.

“I don’t want to be a flower girl” she said softly but matter-of-factly.

“Okay do you want to go this way instead?” I asked gently. She nodded shyly and acquiesced. I led her around the trees and over wobbly rocks in my high(ish) heels.

Later the Best Man remarked “I love how you gave her options, none of which was No!” Yesiree, I haven’t parented a preschooler for many years, but I still know how to do the dance.

Wedding reception and dinner, brunch the next day at my Moms’, family visits in the afternoon, one last dinner with my Dad and Step-mom, and the whirlwind visit to my hometown was over. It had been a great few days, but we were ready to get back on the road again – even Princess Pepper was eager.

The morning of our departure was cold, cloudy and threatening thunderstorms – the princess hates thunderstorms. We said our goodbyes and headed up the Bruce Peninsula to Tobermory where we would catch a ferry – this route shaves about 6 hours of driving time off the trip and since we were already part way up the peninsula, we could take the back roads up to Wiarton before catching the main highway north. About ten minutes into our journey, it started to rain; just a sprinkle at first and then the heavens let loose a torrential downpour so heavy we couldn’t see. I had forgotten how very heavy the rain can fall here. The road was winding and my memories of driving it in my youth were pretty vague – at least it was paved now. Fortunately there were no other cars on the road so we slowed down to a crawl lest we miss a curve and drive into the bay. There was intense thunder and lightning – a deafening clap of thunder cracked so close overhead that I was sure the car had been hit by lightning. I turned around to check on the dog. She was sitting up, panting, her eyes glazed over. For a while she remained in that near catatonic (dogatonic?) state, but eventually she lay down again and went to sleep. She was handling the storm much better than I’d expected, indeed better than she did at home – I guess the car was refuge for her even in a thunderstorm.

When we reached the docks at Tobermory, the rain had stopped. Despite the drive being slower than anticipated, we were still early enough to be third in line to board – there are times when my husband’s incessant need to be early comes in handy. The ferry wasn’t due in for another hour so we parked the car in line and went into the visitor centre. I desperately had to pee, but when I entered the building the lights were all out, there were people milling about and a sign on the women’s washroom that said ‘Out of Order’. I approached some ‘official-looking’ personnel and asked what the deal was. I was informed that a lighting strike had taken out the power and they had only back-up water, which was almost depleted. I asked if there was somewhere else that might have facilities I could use, but was advised that the whole town was affected. One of the fellows assured me that the washrooms on the ferry would be available because it had its own water supply. “Yeah, I don’t think I can wait that long,” I said to myself. He must have read the panic in my face because he gave in and permitted me to use the washroom – providing it would only be, er, a ‘light flush’. I assured him it would be and thanked him profusely.

With that minor emergency out of the way we went back to the car and got the dog to take her for a stroll along the docks. I gazed wistfully out onto the water, remembering for the umpteenth time how very much I missed living on Georgian Bay. Across the harbour was a marina with a rustic-looking restaurant. The sign read ‘Italian Restaurant and Espresso Bar’. “What a lovely little place to have lunch,” I thought. Pepper too gazed out onto the water – she saw some ducks and thought, “What a lovely little lunch!”


Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

A while later, a loud horn blew – the ferry was docking. We headed back to the car in preparation for boarding. Once on board, we settled into some deck chairs near the stern – dogs weren’t allowed inside. Pepper laid down quietly beside us, but started fidgeting when water that had pooled on the deck started flowing towards her – seems we’d chosen the one spot on the ferry where there wasn’t a drainage hole to prevent water from accumulating.  We moved to the other side of the boat where it was drier.  The rest of the ferry ride was uneventful. In fact the rest of the whole trip was without incident – after a short day one, we stayed in Sault Ste. Marie, day two started with several hours of driving through thick soupy fog and ended about 16 hours later getting briefly lost in Winnipeg. But we took it all in stride – we were seasoned ‘road trippers’ now, even the Princess, who was much more relaxed throughout the drive home. The last day of driving seemed to go on forever. It was steaming hot through the prairies again, and we made fewer stops – we just wanted to get home.

Near dusk and still very warm, we pulled into Calgary. Driving up to the bungalow we call home, I noted the garden looked tired and dry – we’d asked our sons to water the pots and the vegetable garden but assumed everything else would be fine. There had been no rain during the whole time we were gone and a few of the shrubs I’d planted earlier in the year were really struggling. We unpacked and fed Pepper – she’d already made herself right at home and flopped down on the floor in one of her favourite spots. Since there was no food in the house we decided we’d have one last ‘road meal’ – while my husband went to pick up ‘Chicken on the Way’ I went outside and gave my thirsty plants a little water.

The next morning I awoke, yawned and stretched luxuriously – it was good to wake up in our own bed. I got up, made coffee and found some granola to have for breakfast. Cup of coffee in hand I headed out to the back yard to survey the gardens. The plants that were so wilted the night before had perked up considerably since watering. I leaned on the fence adjacent to the vegetable garden and inhaled the scent of oregano, basil and arugula, the warmth of the late summer sun allowing them to release their aromatic oils. The oregano was in bloom and abuzz with bumblebees, honeybees and various solitary bees. A Fire-rim Tortoiseshell joined them. True to its kind the butterfly flitted madly about never staying in one place for very long – it reminded me of the road trip we’d just returned from. The butterfly alit on a cluster of oregano blooms, staying put just long enough for me to snap a few photos.

Fire-rim Tortoiseshell. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Fire-rim Tortoiseshell. Photo: Sue Gaviller

My husband opened the gate to the garden looking to see if any of his tomatoes were ready for harvest. He found three – three perfectly formed, perfectly ripe Romas. Again it brought to mind the three of us – man, woman and dog, arriving safely home from a long journey. Hubby picked the three tomatoes and we headed back inside. Pepper was basking in the sun on the lawn – as I walked past her she lifted her head and looked at me. “It’s good to be home isn’t it girl?” I said. She laid her head back down and with a deep contented sigh closed her eyes again.

Yes it was very good to be home.

Princess Pepper

Princess Pepper. Photo: Pat Gaviller

~    The End   ~

Happy trails,

© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Princess Pepper’s Adventure – Part 2

“What happened?” my husband asked hurrying toward me.

“The car was in neutral and the emergency brake wasn’t on and it rolled and I tried to catch it and stop it but I couldn’t and I fell,” I blurted out as if it were all one word.

“Are you okay?” he asked, putting his arms around me.

“I think so,” I replied, as he quickly surveyed my wounds.

“We need to get these cleaned up. There’s a washroom inside,” he said, motioning me towards the building.

“But the dog,” I protested.

“I’ll go check on the dog,” he assured. I can’t remember the exact sequence of events after that. I was still in shock as I entered the building and found the women’s washroom – hubby had obviously apprised the staff of the situation immediately because a young lady followed me in there with a first aid kit.

“I have this,” she said, handing me something – peroxide maybe, or rubbing alcohol.  “And this,” she added. I read the label – chlorhexidine.

“Yeah that’ll be good,” I said and started spritzing it on my many lacerations – left shoulder, left side of left leg, right side of right leg, right shoulder, between my shoulders, top of both feet. Ouch, ouch, ouch – can you say road rash?

The back of my head was throbbing. I reached behind to touch the spot – only a little blood.  I asked the young woman if she’d mind having a look. “Of course,” she said and examined my head. “There are a few big bumps, one has just slightly broken the skin,” she reported. I dabbed some peroxide on this.

“Thank-you so much for your help,” I said.

“Oh no problem,” she replied.

Another woman, a little older than the first, poked her head in the washroom. “Are you alright?” she inquired. “Can I get you anything?” I think she might have even asked me if I wanted a glass of wine, though perhaps I only imagined that. I mean it is a winery.

“No, this young lady’s been very helpful,” I answered looking towards the younger one. “What’s your name?” I asked her.

“I’m Caitlin,” she said. “And this is Christina,” she added, referring to the woman who’d just arrived on the scene.

“Well thank you both so much,” I said.

Hubby must have seen the party going on in the women’s room and figured it was safe to enter. “How you making out?” he asked.

“Well I think that’s as clean as I’m going to get things for now,” I replied.

“Let’s get you back to the hotel,” he said. On the way back to the car he advised me that Pepper was fine and the car was fine – the damage appeared to be only cosmetic.

A mile or so down the road I realized I didn’t have my keys – I would’ve had them in my hand when I started my sprint towards the rolling car and obviously had dropped them. The keys to everything in my life were on that key ring – I didn’t want to wait and go back later lest they never be found, so we turned around. It didn’t take long for us to conclude that the keys weren’t in the parking lot because it was still empty. It was at this point I realized how very fortunate it was that it had been a slow day at the winery and there weren’t other cars, or God forbid people, in the parking lot to share in my little drama.

I went inside to see if maybe my keys had already been found. From behind the bar in the tasting room Christina looked up and said, “Oh I have your keys.”

“Oh thank you,” I responded, relieved. “Where were they?”

“In the parking lot,” she replied. She reiterated her concern for my wellbeing, asking again if I was okay, or if I needed anything. I assured her I would be fine.

Caitlin and Shane I think his name was, the assistant winemaker, were near the front doors as I was leaving. Both asked if I was okay and if there was anything they could do. “Don’t worry about the rock,” Shane assured me. I assumed he was being facetious because I really hadn’t given any thought to the wall of large boulders my car had hit. All I could think was “It’s a really big rock. I think it’ll be okay.” It occurred to me later that since they’d obviously visited the scene of the accident when they retrieved my car keys, the point of impact had already been assessed – maybe there was in fact damage to the rock. It never occurred to me, that in a fight between a compact wagon and a huge boulder, that the boulder wouldn’t win. Maybe Shane’s absolution was genuine – if so, I was grateful and promised myself I’d make a point of checking into it.

Driving back to the hotel, the magnitude of what I’d just experienced –  indeed the proverbial bullet I’d just dodged – began to sink in. I started to sob; sobs of gratitude that the outcome had not been worse, sobs of foolishness for the dim-witted mistake I’d made. My husband kept saying he was sorry and that he felt so bad. I realized he thought it was his fault – he didn’t know I’d started the car again after he’d parked it, and that I was the one who’d stupidly left it in neutral and didn’t apply the emergency brake. I enlightened him.

“Everybody makes mistakes,” he responded. “Don’t beat yourself up. I’m just happy you’re okay.”

We stopped at a pharmacy and he went in to get Epsom salts and antibiotic ointment. After what seemed like an endless drive, we were finally back at our hotel. I ran a hot bath and dumped the Epsom salts in. Wincing, I lowered myself into the tub. I realized my whole right side hurt – I hadn’t noticed the large abrasion extending from waist to knee on my right side as it had been underneath my tank top and chino capri’s. The fabric wasn’t torn at all on the outside but had scraped against my skin so hard that it tore the skin and there was fabric lodged in the wounds. The bruising would come later.

After soaking for a bit, the stinging subsided and I was able to thoroughly clean my ‘ow-ies’. Hubby helped me put ointment on the wounds I couldn’t reach, and assessed me for concussion. We decided I didn’t have one – I’d be seeing my Dad, a retired GP, the next day so would have him check everything out.

“Do you feel well enough to go out for dinner?” he asked. “Or do you want to order in?” We had reservations at a lovely Italian restaurant – another place we’d been to on our honeymoon many years ago.  I decided we should go out – it was a beautiful evening in Niagara-on-the-Lake, I was happy to be alive, and our sweet Peppydawg, around whom this whole trip revolved, was completely fine. Celebration was in order, albeit low-key.

We parked the car near the restaurant and took Dawg for a walk before settling her in the car. Clippety-clop, clippety-clop, clippety-clop; we heard the sound of hoofbeats nearby – a horse-drawn cart showing tourists around the charming historic town made its way down the street. Princess Pepper started prancing, much like she does when she sees another dog. In fact I’m pretty sure she thought the horse was a dog – a really big dog that smelled really good. “No Peppy. It’s not play time,” I said and we continued on with our walk. Then with Peppy curled up in the back seat of the Little Red Wagon, we had a wonderful dinner on the patio – carrot ginger soup, rack of lamb, wild rice and seasonal veggies. And of course wine.

Later that night, lying in bed, sleep eluded me – I couldn’t lie on my left side because my left leg and shoulder hurt. I couldn’t lie on my right side because my right hip hurt. I couldn’t lie on my back because the back of my head hurt, even against the soft pillow. How on earth did I manage to get banged up on both sides of my body and the back of my head – maybe I rolled while being dragged, or when I let go? I thanked God that I wasn’t hurt any worse, and that my dog was okay and my Little Red Wagon was mostly okay. The last thing I remember before falling asleep was thinking, “It’s gonna really hurt squeezing into my Spanx on Saturday.”

The next morning I awoke feeling not-too-bad – tender still, but functional. After breakfast in the hotel (taking turns of course so Pepper wouldn’t be left alone) we packed up to head North to my hometown. We had a few stops to make on the way – most important was those butter tarts! Pulling into the parking lot of the little marketplace, I noticed a beautiful hedge of Hibiscus edging the pavement. I suspect from the size of the huge blooms, that it was likely H. moscheutos – I believe it’s actually a woody perennial, which unfortunately isn’t hardy in Alberta.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

The blooms on this plant are described as ‘dinner plate’ sized which is no exaggeration  they are indeed strikingly large, and range in colour from white to pink to red. Gorgeous aren’t they?

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photos: Sue Gaviller

Anyway, we bought a dozen butter tarts, scrumptious looking things that were purported to be the best in the country – I would reserve judgement until I sunk my teeth into one. I am a connoisseur of several things, butter tarts being one of them.  We also picked up fresh Niagara peaches, nectarines and corn-on-the-cob.

Since our vineyard visits had been cut short the day before, we stopped at a couple of wineries too. Thirty Bench Winery was our first stop – again too hot to leave doggie, but given how sore I was, I was happy to stay put in the car…………until I heard a very loud blam. I was sure it was gunfire. Maybe the winery was being robbed at gunpoint. I heard another gunshot, this time further afield, then another in a yet a different spot. There were other people in the parking lot, some obviously worked there. None of them seemed alarmed. Maybe it’s just a car backfiring, I thought. But I kept hearing it – sometimes deafeningly close and sometimes much further off. The dog was starting to freak out. I didn’t want her to associate the car with anything fearful (the car was our last bastion of freedom), so I decided to take her for a short walk. I checked to make sure I had put the emergency brake on, then I checked again…………and again. I took a few photos – a very pretty place, though more rustic than the wineries we’d visited the day before.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

A few minutes later we met Hubby back at the car and I told him about the gunshot noise that had Princess Pepper quite unsettled. “Those are bird cannons,” he informed me. “They use them to scare the birds away so they don’t eat all the fruit.” Okay that makes more sense than a vineyard robbery.

Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Just down the road a bit was Hidden Bench Vineyard – it was the last winery we’d be able to visit in Niagara wine country, at least on this trip.

We parked in the shade right beside the vines – close enough that without even leaving the car, I could get some macro shots of the clusters of Pinot Noir grapes in various stages of Véraison (this is a fancy word viticulturists use for ‘beginning to ripen’).

At this point we weren’t too far from Peninsula Ridge – I wanted to pop in to say thank-you again for the help and concern the staff had shown me the day before.  Christina was busy in the tasting room but as soon as she saw me she stopped what she was doing. “Hello my dear,” she said. “How are you feeling today? We’ve all been thinking about you and hoping you’re okay,” she continued. I told her I was a little battered and bruised but all in all felt pretty lucky it hadn’t been any worse. The staff I’d met the day before weren’t there so I asked Christina to please pass along my thanks to them as well.

As I walked to the car, I looked around and noted how beautiful the grounds and vineyards looked under the very blue sky. I took a few pictures, remembering that it was photographing these very things that got me into trouble in the first place – the irony of it wasn’t lost on me.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Heading east back to Hamilton before turning to head north, we made a few stops in the city. Somewhere along a main thoroughfare in Hamilton, we noticed the air conditioning had stopped working. Hubby looked at the temperature gauge. “The car is over-heating,” he exclaimed, turning the AC off and the heat on. “This will help dissipate the heat from the engine,” he explained. Okay great, it’s a zillion degrees out and we have the heat on, we’re in stop-and-go traffic so even with the windows wide open there’s no breeze. Now I won’t say my husband was perfectly calm at this point but I will say this: he excels in crisis management of this sort – indeed it saved our life on at least one occasion, so I’ve learned not to argue with him.

“We have to get out of here and onto the highway,” he said. Of course we hit every possible red light and the temperature needle was inching dangerously close to the red zone. Thankfully we made it to the highway and with faster speeds the temperature began to normalize. We hoped maybe this overheating thing was just an anomaly – it was blistering hot out and the car had been idling off and on in city traffic. It could happen right?

We turned the heat off, but didn’t dare turn the AC back on. As we approached Clappison’s Corners we noticed that traffic had slowed despite the green light. No, please no, not now. Yes sir, somebody up ahead was moving a house and the sign read ‘Wide Load. Do not pass’. As traffic slowed to a crawl, the car rapidly began heating up again. We turned the heat on again and groaned, as all around us big semi-trucks were congregating, creating a mammoth heat sink. I was starting to worry about the dog – she doesn’t do well in the heat and it was ridiculously hot in the car. She was panting and obviously stressed.

Finally the wide load cleared the intersection…………..just as the traffic light turned red. As if in answer to the red light, the temperature gauge jumped into the red zone, past the red zone, right off the charts. The engine light came on.

“That’s it,” my husband declared. “We’re toast.”

……………TO BE CONTINUED…………..

Stay tuned,

© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Princess Pepper’s Adventure

On the morning of August 16th 1993, my sister and I and my two boys, then aged 2 and 8, boarded our Olds Cutlass station wagon (affectionately known as the Gutless Cutlass), to make the long journey from Calgary to Southern Ontario. Fitting then, that exactly 20 years later, August 16th 2013, I hopped aboard our Ford Focus station wagon (AKA the Little Red Wagon), this time with my husband and our old dog Pepper, and set out on that same road trip.

What on earth were we thinking you may ask, making the 6500 km round trip with a geriatric dog? Well here’s the thing: Pepper is – how can I say this – ‘special’. Leaving her with friends, or boarding her at a kennel so hubby and I could fly back to my sister’s wedding, would be the easiest option for most dogs………but not Princess Pepper. In her old age she has developed severe separation anxiety and wouldn’t be happy away from us for so long (and this is understating things considerably).

Oh the things we do for our dogs.

In the weeks leading up to our road trip, I began to feel increasing trepidation about it: how was our sweet and very sensitive old pooch going to manage the long, long, long days in the car? She loves car rides but this was going to be the ‘Mother of all Car Rides’. One of my boys expressed similar concern: “Mom, I’m worried about Pepper,” he said. “I think she might die on your trip.” Now before you fret that there’s a sad ending here, let me just say – we all lived to tell the tale…………

I’ve always loved this particular drive, gruelling as it is – it’s a fascinating affirmation of how vast and variable our huge country is. And with my husband doing the lion’s share of the driving, I am free to gaze out the window and appreciate the spectacular scenery – even through the rugged plains of Saskatchewan, which contrary to popular opinion, I actually find quite beautiful in its austereness. I think knowing how many mouths are fed by the endless fields of grain, adds to its beauty.

I am fascinated by the changing ecosystems or ‘biomes’ as we move from west to east – from Grassland to Parkland to Boreal Forest. And the Canadian Shield displays intriguing variation in rock colour and texture – sometimes rusty-brown with vertical striations, sometimes smooth and pink and sometimes grey and jagged. As gardeners, landscape designers and horticulturists, we can take many lessons from the natural rock formations and forestation that Mother Nature presents – the way she mass plants her trees and understory, the large areas of perceived monoculture masking the plant diversity that lies therein. Indeed this should be our template. Of course you don’t have to make a long sojourn to find this inspiration – just go visit the closest natural area. For example, here in Calgary, we have Nose Hill Park and Fish Creek Park right within the city limits.

As we drive on, occasionally we get a whiff of some pungent odour – we assume if we’re driving through farmland that it’s likely cow manure, or maybe rotting vegetation if we’re passing through boggy areas. We close the windows, only to find the odour gets stronger. Somewhere in Northern Ontario we figure out that the smell isn’t coming from outside – it’s coming from inside the car. Turns out what we’re smelling is dog breath – when Pepper starts panting, she has doggie halitosis. Seems the princess is in need of a dental, or at least a really good teeth-brushing. We soon learn that when we smell that smell, it means she is hot, or thirsty, or agitated………or awake. Mostly she just hunkers down in the back seat and sleeps – when she wakes up she seems confused as to why we’re still in the car. Frequent stops allow for her to stretch her legs, have a drink and a pee – us too, though I’m the only one who actually requires ‘facilities’.

For three days we drive – we make it to Winnipeg the first night after a 14 hour drive, and to Sault Ste. Marie the second night after a ridiculous 17 hours of driving. The third day is easy by comparison – we actually have time to have breakfast in the hotel dining room and I even have a few minutes to take some photos of the beautiful hotel gardens; a lovely courtyard with mammoth Hostas, delicate ferns and crisp white Hydrangeas.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Ostrich Fern and Hosta ‘Frances Williams’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

A lovely pairing – Large white flowerheads of Annabelle Hydrangea echo the bright white variegations of Hosta sp. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Then it’s off to Hamilton. Coming down the 400 we get stuck in weekend traffic, and it is smokin’ hot out. In fact it was sweltering hot throughout the entire drive across four provinces – thankfully the Little Red Wagon has very efficient air conditioning.

Arriving in Hamilton early evening we have time to freshen up at the hotel and take Pepper for a walk around the very funky neighbourhood where our hotel is located. Later, when it’s finally cool enough that we can leave Dawg in the car (the one place she’s quite comfortable without us), we are able to have a proper dinner at a real restaurant – ‘road food’ when one is trying to eat healthy means not eating much at all.

Hubby wants to take me to a place he’d discovered when in town several weeks prior – a great little restaurant called Earth to Table Bread Bar. If you’re ever in Hamilton I highly recommend this popular spot – the food is awesome and their philosophy and practice of sourcing the best ingredients from local producers, as well as their own farm, means everything is fresh and flavourful. Our meal is made all the more entertaining by our flirtatious young waiter.

Next day is a flurry of whirlwind visits – first stop is the Royal Botanical Gardens, which allows dogs on the grounds providing they are leashed.  We have some time to tour the gardens before our scheduled lunch, though not enough to really take in all that is there – this would require at least a full day, which sadly we didn’t have. I snap a few photos. The sun is strong and the lighting harsh. I’m hot, Pepper is bored and looking for trouble, and though hubby is being extraordinarily patient, I don’t have the patience to fuss with camera settings to adjust for lighting conditions. I’m all too happy to abort my photo mission and head to the cool of the Gardens’ Café where we meet for a lovely lunch with my husband’s sisters. The visit is of course too short, but we’ve resigned ourselves to the fact that this is indeed a whirlwind trip.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Beautiful stone sculptures from Zimbabwe are featured in the sculpture gardens. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Spent bloom of Echinacea ‘White Swan’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

The Scented Garden flaunts a magnificent tiered fountain. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Container on pillar 2

A fluted container brimming with yellow million bells sits atop a stone pillar in the Scented Garden.
Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Trumpet vine on the Pergola Walk. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Next it’s off to my sister’s in Dundas to see her handsome new home and get a feel for the property so I can design her gardens. Princess Pepper is delighted to cavort with her dog and roll around in the grass. Princess Ellen my adorable 3-year-old niece, is delighted to show off her many talents; like ‘cooking’ plastic hot dogs and corn-on-the-cob, swinging on her swing (“Auntie Sue, look what I can do”), or telling outrageous stories – her mother looks at her sideways and says, “Honey are you sure that really happened?” Soooo cute. The visit is again way too short, but we’ll see them again in a few days – we’re here for a wedding and there are numerous family gatherings still to come.

Finally we’re off to beautiful Niagara-on-the-Lake where we plan to decompress for a few days before family festivities begin. Passing through several small towns along the way, we start imagining where we might settle should we decide to move to this part of the country. It isn’t the first time we’ve fantasized about this – it’s beautiful country here. It’s wine country here – and garden country extraordinaire. Why wouldn’t we want to live here? We pass by a covered produce stand – the sign outside boasts fresh Niagara fruit and vegetables as well as ‘Canada’s Best Butter Tart’. Mmmm, butter tarts – we decide we’ll definitely stop by here on our way back out of town.

Arriving in Niagara-on-the-Lake we check into our hotel, a block from the shores of Lake Ontario, and let the serene stillness of our cool room wash over us, shedding the stress of the long hot drive. The hotel staff are impeccably professional, yet casually unpretentious. And they love Pepper – when we walk through the lobby we are greeted warmly and cordially, but Princess Pepper is effused and gushed over.

We walk down to the beach. Pepper ventures to the water’s edge intending to drink, but a small wave laps up against the shore and startles her. Again she goes to drink. Another small wave and………..well, she’s a skittish thing and gives up – clearly this big ‘water bowl’ isn’t a safe place to drink from. She’s happy to walk alongside us though as we stroll beside the water.

It’s very warm here, even with the moderating influence of the lake. We wait until sundown before we head out for dinner – it should be cool enough then for Pepper to stay in the car. The back seat of the Little Red Wagon has become her safe haven during the trip – indeed it is her home away from home.  We park the car close by and she obligingly curls up in the back seat (or the front passenger seat, or even the driver’s seat) and lets us dine. We choose a place that seems oddly familiar – my husband remembers that in fact we had dined at this exact restaurant when we honeymooned here 24 years ago. How romantic.

The following day I head to the shopping district (I needed to purchase another dress or two since I’d packed only what I’d wear to the wedding and a bunch of schlub wear for travelling in, completely overlooking that there would be a few other events I might want to dress up for). The walk from the hotel takes me through a residential area with many pretty gardens, a beautiful park with various mixed shrub, perennial and annual plantings, and of course the streets are all beautifully planted with stunning displays of annuals. I’m on a shopping mission, but I knew I’d want to snap some photos, so made sure I slipped my camera ‘round my neck before setting out.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Rose of Sharon is a common sight in the Niagara region, and much of Southern Ontario, at this time of year. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Hosta Hillside – two types of Hosta adorn a sloped boulevard. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Much of what grows here is also hardy in Alberta, but I also see numerous trees, shrubs, perennials and grasses that we can’t grow – some I recognize from growing up in Southern Ontario, some I feel like I should know but can’t quite put my finger on, and others I really don’t know at all.

My horticulture and landscape design training has taken place entirely in Alberta, so I feel somewhat out of my element here. Evidently, if moving to this part of the country is in my future, I’ll have to expand my mental horticultural database and upgrade my plant ID skills.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Lime green Coleus and wax begonia provide a colourful underplanting for weeping cypress and variegated Brugmansia. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Acer palmatum, Hosta sp. and Bergenia cordifolia make a lovely trio. Photo: Sue Gaviller

foliage planting

Another lovely combo – fountain grass, coleus and sweet potato vine present great color and texture contrast. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Brightly variegated Canna lily foliage is a stunning backdrop for the bright coral-red flowers and shiny foliage of this wax begonia. Photo: Sue Gaviller

In the afternoon, we head out to visit some wineries – my husband has been charged with the duty of choosing and purchasing wine for the wedding. The first vineyard we visit is Tawse – voted Canadian Winery of the Year 3 years in a row by the now defunct Wine Access magazine. It’s blistering hot out, too hot for puppydawg to stay in the car, so hubby heads into the winery and Pepper and I take a walk around the stunningly landscaped grounds – truly they’ve spared no expense here.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Variegated ornamental grass pairs beautifully with Rudbeckia. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

A sunny border of Echinacea, Sedum, Rudbeckia, Calamagrostis and other ornamental grasses.
Photo: Sue Gaviller

As I photograph the beautiful gardens, I hear ‘Baaaah’ from down the hill and over the fence – a small flock of sheep canters up to a covered enclosure, likely seeking shade. Princess Pepper is utterly enchanted – she trots back and forth at the end of her long lead, tail up, ears perked and looking as exuberant and energetic as she did in her puppyhood. I don’t know if her response was predatory or playful, but she really wanted to get to those sheep. Eventually the tugging at the end of her leash makes it difficult to take photos so I reel her in, “Peppy down” I command gently. “Peppy down” I say, a little less gently. She does so, begrudgingly, and I manage to snap a few more shots.

Tawse plantings 2

Photo: Sue Gaviller

The Courtyard, as seen from the tasting room, Photo: Sue Gaviller

The Courtyard, as seen from the tasting room. Photo: Sue Gaviller

A classical fountain in the gardens at Peninsula Ridge. Photo: Sue Gaviller

A classical fountain in the gardens at Peninsula Ridge.
Photo: Sue Gaviller

Next stop is Peninsula Ridge – makers of some of the finest Chardonnay in the country. We find a shady spot beneath a beautiful multistem birch, but it’s still too hot to leave Pepper for any longer than a few minutes. While Hubby buys wine, I stay with the dog. Even in the shade with the windows wide open it’s really hot – worried that pooch might overheat, I start the car, put it in neutral and let the air conditioning run for a minute or two. With the car cooled off a bit, I decide I can leave Peppy long enough to take a few photos. I stroll around the empty parking lot and snap some shots of the gardens and vineyards.

Perovskia atriplicifolia and Rudbeckia. Photo: Su Gaviller

Perovskia atriplicifolia and Rudbeckia. Photo: Sue Gaviller

View overlooking the vineyard at Peninsula Ridge. Photo: Sue Gaviller

View overlooking the vineyard at Peninsula Ridge. Photo: Sue Gaviller

The next few minutes are a blur, but it goes something like this: I saw a red station wagon on the move heading down the hill, about 50 feet away from me. It took me a few seconds to a) realize the car was mine b) realize why it was moving (I’d thoughtlessly left it in neutral, apparently on an imperceptible slope) and c) determine that its trajectory appeared to be down the sloped driveway potentially into the path of oncoming cars. My only thought was, “My dog is in that car!” and I took off after it. I haven’t sprinted like that since I ran the 50 yard dash in high school – in fact I didn’t think I still had it in me, but I caught up to that car and grabbed the post between the front and back windows, hoping to reach in and pull the emergency brake. Alas the car was moving too fast and I lost my footing. I was dragged for several feet before realizing I had to let go. I remember distinctly the sensation of my left shoulder scraping along the pavement and thinking it odd that when the back of my head hit the ground, it bounced a few times, rather like a basket ball.

Now I don’t know if perhaps I put sufficient drag (pardon the pun) on one side of the car so as to actually affect its trajectory, or if some divine intervention had just occurred, but as I pulled myself up, I saw the car change course, slowing its movement slightly and head towards a low wall of large rocks. It came to rest with a thud – no, a very loud crunch.

This photo was taken seconds before my little 'mishap'. Photo: Sue Gaviller

This was the last photo I took before my ‘little mishap’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

I start running towards the car, fearing the worst – my sandal has broken and my feet are bleeding so I can only hobble. Oddly my first thought is “There goes my pretty pink pedicure.” When I reach the car I’m barely able to open the driver seat door due to the damage the impact has caused the front end. Pepper is still lying quietly in the back seat, but sits up when she hears the loud noise the car door makes as I force it open. She looks at me quizzically as if to ask “Mom, what was that?” She appears to be unharmed. Unfortunately I can’t say the same about myself. Shaking, hyperventilating and still in shock I try to reach my husband on his cell phone. No answer. I begin limping up the hill towards the winery just as he exits the building. He looks at me, puzzled.

“We have a problem,”  I announce.

……………TO BE CONTINUED…………..

Stay tuned,
© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Say It Ain’t So

Sitting at my computer this morning, faithfully writing my long-promised article on texture in the garden, my husband pokes his head in my office. “Hey,” he says, “Did you read the article in the paper about diseased trees in Calgary?” I hadn’t read it yet, so he elaborates a little, saying that according to the article, the recent harsh winters and wet springs are causing some problems with trees around the city. Of course he’d only skimmed the piece, because if he’d read the whole thing he may have thought better than to steer me towards it.

I get up from my desk, head to the kitchen for my coffee and open the weekly Garden Section. Finding the article I begin perusing it. “The city’s trees are under attack…..blah, blah, blah…..it’s an epidemic…..blah, blah, blah…..two main problems…….blah, blah, blah…..an outbreak of caterpillars…..blah, blah…” – say what? Back up the worm wagon! Did you say caterpillars?

Telling myself to relax, I think, “Oh it’s probably just leaf rollers or cabbage worms they’re referring to. Phew!” But then I remember the other day, while canvassing for the Diabetes Association’s spring campaign, I noticed what looked suspiciously like a tent caterpillar crawling on the wall of a neighbour’s house – I knocked it down, stomped on it and told my puzzled neighbour she should do the same if she ever sees another.

At this point I begin to get a real sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, so I keep reading……“mobs of crawling black caterpillars,” and finally the dreaded words, “forest tent caterpillar”. Ugh! Blech! Yuck! No, not here! Please say it ain’t so!

Now those of you who know me as Sue the fearless gardener, and have watched simultaneously impressed and disgusted, as I hand-pick slugs and step on them, squish cabbage worms with my fingers, or run an aphid-infested stem between my thumb and forefinger crushing them all in the process, my apparent phobic response to the beastly tent caterpillar may come as a surprise to you. But if you knew me as a teenager, living on the shores of Georgian Bay in rural Southern Ontario, you might recall a very different scene – me out riding my horse on a country road and squealing as I rode under a tree dangling with hundreds of the wiggly worms; or me recoiling in horror at the sight of huge dark masses of them on the aspens and birches that surrounded our country home, or the monster specimen I found crawling on a wall inside our house – I have the heebie-jeebies just writing this. Seriously, these things freaked me out so much that I’d carry an umbrella just to walk from the house to the car because the creepy critters literally fell from the sky (well from the trees actually).

So you can imagine my horror, when after living in Calgary for the last 3 decades, blessed with a caterpillar-free existence, I discover my little bubble has been burst. I’d of course heard mention of swarms of tent caterpillars in Northern Alberta and even as close as Cochrane, but I have never seen a single one in Calgary in all the years I’ve lived here! So yeah, I’m a little squeamish to the say the least, at the thought of an incursion of Malacosoma disstria into our fair city. But the dreaded forest tent caterpillar is more than just a nightmare for girly-girls like me – it can cause significant damage to a tree, indeed to whole forests, as they munch their way through leaf after leaf, tree after tree.

My last experience with them was a few decades ago when my husband and I decided to honeymoon at a beautiful resort in the Halliburton Highlands of Northern(ish) Ontario………………in June – the height of black fly season, mosquito season, and about the time the yucky caterpillars begin their trek, down from the trees, across streets and highways, to I-know-not-where. Yikes! What were we thinking? Anyway, driving through parts of the province, we could see the huge tracts of defoliated aspen forest. Barren. Trees with no leaves. It’s an alarming sight to say the least, and while most trees can refoliate within a few weeks, if defoliation occurs three or more years in a row, considerable tree mortality can result.

To make matters worse, when the mass migration of caterpillars crossed major roads, the result was millions of squished creepy-crawlies, making the roads greasy and the driving hazardous.

While the population of tent caterpillars is cyclical in nature, at least in the East, I have no intention of letting them spin their sticky strands on any of my trees or shrubs. So if you’ll excuse me I’m off to examine my leafy friends to look for signs of caterpillar activity, and for the sake of this girly gardener’s peace of mind, I ask that y’all do the same.

And I promise my next post won’t be about beasty bugs or birds – I have something more sumptuous for you to look forward to.

Til then,
© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012.Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Maggie and Miss Sue

Maggie lived in a big nest in a tall tree. Every night she snuggled up in the nest with her family – Mom, Dad, Brother and Sister. Every morning when her mom and dad headed out to find food for the family, Maggie and her brother and sister would go to Miss Sue’s garden.

“You’ll be safe here,” her mother said. “Stay on the fence and bask in the sun, and if the sun gets too hot you can take cover under the bushes. And you can drink or cool off in that big bowl of water.” Maggie thought this was a fine place to spend her days.

The three young birds had barely fledged so couldn’t really fly yet, except to scramble back up onto the fence from the ground or the nearby bird bath. They weren’t allowed to venture very far from the fence – not until they could fly well enough to flee from danger. So they were content to sit there quietly on the fence, the three of them perched side by side, until their parents returned.

Well……….maybe not very quietly.

Miss Sue was awakened at sun-up to a loud ruckus just outside her bedroom window. “Magpies,” she muttered, “they’re so loud and obnoxious. What on earth are they squawking about so early in the morning and why are they right outside my window?” She rolled over, pulling her pillow over her head and tried to find her way back to slumber. Nope, not happening.

Miss Sue thought about the first time she’d ever seen a magpie – she had just come West on the train and would be staying with a friend of one of her travelling companions. They were met at the train station by a nice-looking, though humourless, young man with a huge moustache. He drove them to his home just east of the city, where they could stay until they made other arrangements. As they drove along the country road, Miss Sue noticed a menacing cloud in the distance – not dark and grey like a thunderhead, but dirty brown.

“What is that?” she asked.

“Sandstorm,” replied Mr. Mustache matter-of-factly. “Better hope we don’t get caught in it,” he continued, only slightly less matter-of-factly. Miss Sue decided she didn’t much like Mr. Mustache and hoped she and her friends would find other lodging before too long. She stared out at the gathering dust clouds. A twiggy, barrel-shaped object tumbled across the road, then a few more. “Tumbleweed,” said Mustache, as if reading her thoughts.

Seriously? Sandstorms? And tumbleweed?  “I guess this really is the Wild West,” she mused. She half expected to see Hoss and Little Joe riding along the road.

A flash of cobalt blue caught her eye – a large black and white bird with a shiny blue tail alit on a fence post. “What a beautiful bird,” she thought aloud.

“That’s a magpie – they’re nothing but noisy scavengers,” snorted you-know-who. There were no magpies where Miss Sue came from. She thought they were beautiful, despite Mr. Mustache’s proclamation.

A few minutes later they arrived at their destination – a large country home apparently rented by six fellows who were quite the partiers. Miss Sue stayed there for a week or so but remembers very little – every day was pretty much a party at the big house. She did however learn to despise magpies, and in the several decades since, has never seen another sandstorm.

More squawking jolted Miss Sue back to the present. “Why don’t they shut up,” she growled.

“What’s wrong?” asked her husband.

“Stupid magpies woke me up,” she answered, but he’d already fallen back asleep. Her mind wandered again – this time to a conversation with a couple of family members. By this time she’d become an avid gardener and regularly shooed the beasty birds from her pretty bird-bath. “This isn’t for you,” she’d scold them, “It’s for nice birds.”

Her sister and brother-in-law once witnessed this – they were both biologists involved with wildlife rehabilitation. “You wouldn’t feel that way if you’d ever hand-raised a magpie,” one of them commented.

“Have you ever seen a baby magpie?” the other asked.  “They’re really cute! You would love them if you’d seen their babies, and how well their parents take care of them.”

Miss Sue scoffed at the memory. “Fat chance,” she thought, before finally falling back asleep.

But then she hadn’t met Maggie yet.

Maggie sat on the fence and watched her mom and dad fly off, their big beautiful wings and long graceful tails glossy black and opalescent blue. “One day I will be beautiful like them,” she thought, “and I will soar high in the sky.” She peered down at her fluffy black breast and snow-white tummy, wishing her soft downy covering would be replaced by real feathers. She looked around at the stump of a thing that would one day be a tail and willed it to elongate. It did not. It was still a stub. She sighed, “When will I ever grow up?” Maggie closed her eyes and dozed in the morning sun.

She awoke from her nap to the familiar sound of her parents’ voices – they’d returned with food. “C’mon kids. Breakfast!” cried Mom. The little birds hopped down off the fence, through the shrubs and flowers, and onto the lawn where their parents awaited with their gourmet loot.

“Me first,” said Brother.

“No me,” yelped Sister.

“I want some,” cried Maggie. Magpie youth are very vocal at feeding time.

There was plenty for everyone though.

Miss Sue opened her eyes and looked at her clock – 9:00AM. Pleased that she’d managed to get a little more shut-eye after dawn’s rude awakening, she felt slightly less annoyed at the boisterous magpie-song outside her window.

Her husband was already up. “Want coffee?” he asked. That was really a rhetorical question on any given morning.

“Yes thanks,” she replied. A beautiful morning in late May, Miss Sue decided to sit out on the front porch with her coffee. This was her favourite time of year – the transition between spring and summer, with its aromas of fresh-cut grass, Mayday and apple-blossom, even the sun itself seemed to have a scent. She took a deep breath, basking in the anticipation of a new garden season, and then began the visual scan of her front garden that was part of her morning ritual. First to the left, then the right, looking for the daily changes that mark the seasonal evolution of a garden, her eyes rested on three little black and white balls of fluff sitting atop her fence – the fence just feet from her bedroom window.

“Well hello there cutie-pies,” she cooed.  “Are you the source of all that noise?” Remembering her sister’s words about baby magpies, she smiled, “I guess sis was right.” Miss Sue thought these little birds were just about the cutest thing she’d ever seen.

Two of the fledglings sidled away from the voice, but the other one, the smallest of the three, seemed to like the sound of it – it appeared to recognize that Miss Sue was friendly, unthreatening. She looked straight at Miss Sue and Miss Sue looked straight back at her, and in that moment………….well let’s just say Miss Sue was smitten with these little black and white babes – especially the littlest one, whom she affectionately named Maggie.

Every morning Maggie sat on the fence eagerly waiting for Miss Sue to come out and play – well really just to sit on the front step and drink her coffee, but to Maggie, seeing Miss Sue there made everything seem right. The world was a safe place when Miss Sue was around. She would shoo away the neighbourhood cats who tried to stalk the little birds. She’d remind the little lad next door when he chased after the baby birds trying to pet them, that it just frightened them.

One day Miss Sue was chatting with a neighbour, gushing about the little birds and how cute they were. Maggie overheard snippets of the conversation. “They’ll grow up to be nasty birds like all magpies – they should all be shot,” she heard the other woman say. Maggie hoped Miss Sue wouldn’t be swayed by these words. It never occurred to her that everyone wouldn’t be as enamoured of her as Miss Sue was. She worried that maybe the world wasn’t such a safe place after all, with so many hating her kind.

Miss Sue finished her conversation and returned to her perch on the front step. She looked at Maggie and said, “Don’t worry girl, I’ve still got your back.” Maggie was relieved to know that Miss Sue was still her friend. She was troubled though.

That night, as her mom was tucking her into bed, Maggie asked, “Mommy why do people hate us?”

Mother Magpie’s heart sank – she had hoped her children would never have to know fear or hatred. “They hate us because they don’t understand us,” she replied. “They think we’re just noisy scavengers.” Mother Magpie continued, “I guess we are kind of a raucous bunch, especially our teenagers, but that’s just the way God made us. Humans forget that their own teenagers are also very noisy, with their loud music and boisterous manner. All humans are pretty noisy for that matter – all those things on wheels with loud engines; kind of hypocritical when you think about it.”

“We’re so much more than just noise makers though,” she went on. “Our proud ancestors once rode the backs of the great buffalo, keeping them clean of pesky ticks. In fact our diet consisted almost entirely of these blood-sucking insects.” Maggie thought this sounded disgusting. She much preferred the thought of yummy bread crusts and apple cores. But she listened intently as her mother spoke of the near extinction of the buffalo and how resourceful her ancestors had been in moving from a specialist diet to that of a generalist.

“What’s a specialist diet?” asked Maggie.

“It means we were picky eaters,” her father quipped winking at his mate – Father Magpie liked to add his two-cents-worth.

“What’s a generalist?” continued Maggie.

Mother Magpie opened her beak to answer but Pops beat her to it. “It means we’ll eat any old crap now,” he snorted. Maggie giggled at her father’s words. Trust Mr. Magpie to inject a little levity into even the most serious discussions.

Maggie felt better, though she was surprised to learn that grasshoppers, cutworms and other insects were still the current diet of many of her relatives – she didn’t envy them. Her mom had said this meant they were very important to farmers and gardeners – like Miss Sue. Maggie felt very proud to be a magpie and drifted off to sleep dreaming of a great adventure riding the buffalo.

Miss Sue found the antics of the three fledglings most entertaining. She watched as the two larger ones became more adept at flying, venturing a little further from the fence, to the roof of the neighbour’s house or the nearby green ash tree. The little one tried heroically to fly but invariably ended up on the ground, where she’d manoeuvre about with a hop-hop, toddle-toddle, flutter-flutter, flop……………..hop-hop, toddle-toddle, flutter-flutter, flop.

Curiosity would often lead her further from the fence than she was supposed to go. Her parents would come back with food and squawk at Maggie. Miss Sue imagined they were chastising the little bird for not being where she was supposed to be. Maggie reminded Miss Sue of herself when she was young – precocious and wanting to grow up so much faster than was possible, or even healthy.

It got her into loads of trouble.

Maggie was bored. Sister and Brother were now able to fly – they were good little birds and never went far, but it still meant she had no one to keep her company most of the time. Maggie wanted to be a good bird like her siblings – indeed she tried very hard to be a good girl, but left to her own devices, she would wander off in search of something interesting.  “Maggie!” her parents would scold, “You’re to stay close to the fence where it’s safe, until you’re able to fly.”

“But when will that be?” she whined.

“Soon enough my child, soon enough,” her mother assured her. But nothing ever happened soon enough for Maggie. She wanted, indeed had always wanted, to be a grown-up – to do grown up things and have grown up adventures.

One day, as Maggie sat on the fence waiting for something exciting to happen, she noticed a beautiful Swallowtail butterfly flitting around the garden. As it neared her, she thought to herself, “What a pretty creature. I wonder where it’s going.” Maggie tried to launch herself into flight to follow it, but as usual she toppled to the ground. She hopped along after it trying to keep up, but after a while she lost it and ceased her pursuit.

Maggie peered around and realized that nothing looked familiar – she couldn’t see the cranberry bushes or the pink peonies or even the bright white daisies which always served as a beacon to guide her back to her sunny perch on the fence. Instead Maggie found herself in a shady damp place with dark leafy plants like periwinkle and Rhododendron. She was a little frightened and wished she had heeded her mother’s warnings about venturing too far from the fence.

“How will I ever get home?” Maggie thought. She decided to stay put among the Rhodos and wait. She really missed her mom and dad, and her brother and sister.

After what seemed an eternity, Maggie heard the faint sounds of her mother calling in the distance. The voice got closer. “Maggie!” her mother called with a mix of urgency and annoyance. “Where are you?”

When at last Maggie could see her mother’s shadowy figure through the bushes, she tumbled out from her hiding spot. “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy,” she cried. “I missed you soooo much,” and she began rushing towards her mother – hop-hop, toddle-toddle, flutter-flutter, flop, hop-hop, toddle-toddle, flutter-flutter, flop as fast as her little legs and wings could take her.

Mrs. Magpie was both relieved and furious – she had been so worried. But watching her daughter’s frantic approach, she couldn’t bring herself to be angry. All she could do was raise her great big wing and let Maggie collapse into her motherly embrace.  “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy,” Maggie repeated. “I missed you soooo much.”

From her bedroom window, Miss Sue watched this little drama unfold – she didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  Maggie’s frenzied attempt to reach her mother was comical to be sure, but the ensuing ‘mother and child reunion’ was one of the most poignant moments she’d ever witnessed. It reminded her of the time she momentarily lost sight of her pre-schooler in a department store. She’d taken her eyes off him for mere seconds to check a price tag on a piece of clothing – and he was gone. Since he was of course much shorter than the racks of clothing, Miss Sue couldn’t see him and he couldn’t see her – indeed it must have seemed rather like a maze to him. Frantically searching and calling his name for what seemed like hours, but in reality was only a minute or so, she finally saw him peek out from behind one of the racks.

“Yeah Mom?” he’d answered, wide-eyed but not scared. Miss Sue scooped him up in her arms and held him tightly, crying and laughing and scolding all at the same time. Yes Miss Sue knew exactly what Mother Magpie had experienced while looking for Maggie. (Perhaps I anthropomorphize a little here).

A week or so later, Miss Sue was inside having lunch when she heard the familiar sound of magpies squawking. Assuming it was feeding time, or that Maggie had gotten herself into trouble again, Miss Sue just smiled and ignored the noise coming from her front yard. The squawking got louder and more urgent until Miss Sue eventually got up and went outside to see what the ruckus was. She looked around but saw only Maggie sitting on the edge of the bird bath.

“What is it girl?” she asked, scanning the yard to see if perhaps a cat was stalking the young bird. Maggie started squawking again until Miss Sue looked right at her.

She seemed to be saying, “Miss Sue, Miss Sue, look at me. Look what I can do,” and she fluttered her wings a little. Then with great will and determination Maggie lifted herself off the bird bath, flapping her wings ferociously, and flew all the way to the other side of the yard into the neighbour’s tree. Miss Sue beamed with pride much like she had witnessing her children take their first tentative steps.

“Atta girl Maggie,” she said softly. “You can fly!”

She saw very little of the young magpies after this – they were all able to accompany their parents on their food-finding missions now. Sometimes as Miss Sue walked or drove down her street, she would see the noisy family of five – three adolescent birds still clamoring for food from their very patient parents. She’d smile a bittersweet smile and feel blessed to have had the chance to see these three babes grow into young adults.

On a cool, late fall afternoon, as Miss Sue was putting her garden to bed for the winter,  a large magpie flew down and elegantly alit on the fence – in the exact spot she had first seen Maggie.  Miss Sue knew intuitively it was Maggie and she knew the beautiful bird she’d watched grow up, had come to say goodbye. Maggie looked at Miss Sue and let out a little gurgle and a soft squawk. Then she took wing. Miss Sue watched Maggie fly off, her big beautiful wings and long graceful tail glossy black and opalescent blue.

“I’ve still got your back girl,” she whispered, and went inside.

~   The End   ~

Maggie. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

This story was based on my experiences with a trio of fledgling magpies that spent the better part of a summer perched on my garden fence.

© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.