There and Back; a Hortigeek’s Tale, Part 3 ~ Going Coastal ~

Our time in wine country had been amazing – Len has professional associates in the area so we’d been treated very well. The coast was calling though, and for me this was the most anticipated part of our trip. Our next stop would be Monterey, which hubby had determined (mistakenly) we could reach via a single Interstate. Somewhere between Fremont and San Jose he asked his navigator (me) to check his directions (which he proactively wrote out every night before bed) to make sure the highway didn’t turn anywhere. Comparing his written directions to our TripTik, I realized something wasn’t right. I advised The Captain that according to our map, I-680 did not continue through to Monterey, that in fact it appeared to end abruptly just east of San Jose. It’s not so much that he didn’t believe me, as that he couldn’t disbelieve Mr. Google… until we found ourselves on the 101 heading towards San Francisco and there were no more signs for I-680. So we turned west somewhere, then eventually south until we ended up in Santa Cruz (which fortunately was less than an hour from Monterey and a very nice drive along the coastal highway). After this, it was I who consulted Google maps every night and wrote down directions for our next day’s destinations. I won’t say we didn’t get lost again after that, but at least I could read and understand my own directions. I suppose our continued use of such tools as maps must seem archaic, considering every cell phone now comes equipped with GPS.

When we arrived in Monterey and finally found our hotel (my husband did eventually break down and use his GPS), we checked in and asked the young ladies at front desk where we could find the best seafood. Our intention had been to have dinner in the famed Cannery Row district, but hotel staff asserted that the best seafood was to be had at fisherman’s wharf. The hotel was several blocks from the waterfront so we could walk along the beach to get to the wharf. It was windy and cool walking along the Monterey coast – a refreshing change from the hot still air of the valleys. I was fascinated with the unique coastal vegetation – rugged wind-sculpted Monterey cypress punctuated masses of succulent Delosperma carpeting the sandy hills beside the shore. Every so often I’d stop and turn to snap another shot.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

I inhaled deeply the ocean’s salty aroma and revelled in the wind blowing through my hair. I heard the distant bark of sea lions which grew louder as we neared the wharf.

When we reached the dock it was too early for dinner so we wandered a bit. We found a little coffee shack and as usual, ordered a dark-roast – almost everywhere we visited we’d been unable to get a cup of dark-roast coffee. I started to think maybe it was a Canadian thing, this love of really rich dark brew, but here in Monterey we were finally able to sate our coffee cravings. Sipping the first dark brew I’d had since leaving Canada, we strolled around the wharf area and soaked up the coastal essence.

Beautiful Mexican sage bush (Salvia leucantha) in Monterey. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Beautiful Mexican sage bush (Salvia leucantha) at the Monterey wharf. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Masses of Grasses: the reddish inflorescence of this dwarf fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) looks stunning against red-brown cedar shakes, Monterey Marina. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Echium - monterey

Purple spikes of Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans) are a common site in coastal gardens and landscapes. Photo: Sue Gaviller

We followed the sound of sea lions to their basking place on a raft beside the docks. I don’t know why I became so enamoured of these particular marine mammals – perhaps it was their goofy social antics, belying the incredible grace with which they swim and dive. Or the way they lay in the sun, their soft brown fur glistening, lifting their heads periodically to peer around before laying back down again, so seemingly content. They reminded me of our sweet brown dog Pepper, whom we’d lost only a couple of months before. It was mid January when we were given the news that she was terminally ill. My one wish had been that she’d have a chance to soak up the sun in her backyard, splayed out on her side the way she loved to do – just one more time. On a warm March day after weeks of vicious cold, she was able to do this – for maybe five minutes she lay there on a patch of dry grass, breathing softly, then got up and looked me straight in the eye as if trying to tell me something. I knew then that she was ready, indeed she wanted, to be set free to chase rabbits – in that big dog-park-in-the-sky. She’d lived a good life, a long life, and while I was at peace with the decision that had to be made, I knew I’d miss her terribly. And so it was that every time I saw or heard sea lions, I’d think of her and feel awash in warmth… and just a little melancholy.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

These furry brown sea mammals are sooo adorable are they not? Photo: Sue Gaviller

The wharf offered many choices for dining, each venue featuring plated displays of mouth-watering menu items and someone posted at the door beckoning passersby to come dine there. It was difficult to choose, so we chose the one with the first available window seat. Equally difficult was trying to decide what to select from the menu – in the end I opted for a ‘Captains Plate’ which had a bit of everything. And they boasted the best clam chowder in town so I had to try some of that too… yup I rolled outta there when we were finished. But a divine meal it was, eating succulent seafood and watching the sea lions settle on the rocks as the sun set.

While in Monterey we did visit Cannery Row (had another great cuppa dark java), as well as the artist’s community of Carmel about 20 miles south of Monterey. Both are tourist destinations, and since it was a weekend, they were very busy places. We agreed that we’d like to come back one day, when we had more time – and there were fewer people.

A contemporary planting, with a nautical flair in Cannery Row. Photo: Sue Gaviller

A contemporary planting – with a nautical flair. Cannery Row, Monterey. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

A Brewer’s Blackbird flits about a casual coastal planting. Photo: Sue Gaviller

In the artist's community of Carmel by the Sea, the artist's touch abounds, as in the pretty painted vine on the house above and the artful container arrangements below. Photos: Sue Gaviller

In Carmel, the artist’s touch abounds – note the pretty painted vine on the house (above) and the artful container arrangements (below). Photos: Sue Gaviller

container planting Carmelcontainer planting Carmel 2

When we left Monterey we drove south along the Big Sur coastline – a magnificent drive along winding, cliff-hugging roads with panoramic views of the ocean. The heights and the road’s proximity to the edge might have made me queasy had the vistas not been so awe-inspiring.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Breathtaking views along the Big Sur coastline have earned this portion of route #1 the designation of National Scenic Byway and ‘All-American Road’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

We continued our drive along the beautiful coastal highway until we reached the town of Cambria where we turned inland towards Paso Robles – there were a couple of wineries in the area we wanted to visit, so we spent the night. We’d been on the road now for two weeks and I needed to wash some clothes – fortunately our hotel had laundry facilities. When I approached the front desk to get some coin for the washer and dryer, the clerk politely obliged. Well, more than politely – in his Southern-drawl he added, “Ma’am you smell real good. Like real expensive perfume.” The young fellow was probably just being friendly, but I found his candor a bit unnerving, especially since I wasn’t wearing any perfume.

It was pretty here, though hot and very dry – the effects of California’s drought were more obvious the further south we went. I was thankful we were back inland for only a day or two before we’d be heading back to the coast. San Francisco was our next destination.

I’d never been to San Francisco and I really didn’t think I was going to be all that thrilled with the sprawling metropolis. But I agreed to go for one night just so I could say I’d been to San Fran. Thanks to my directions we had no trouble finding our hotel, and to my delight, our room was on the 20th floor, providing a spectacular view of the city and a glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge. I was beginning to like it here. It was mid afternoon so we had time to grab a Starbucks and take a leisurely stroll before heading to the wharf for dinner.

We made our way up the hills and down, marvelling at the distinctive design of the buildings. San Francisco’s architecture can only be described as… well, San Francisco. It is entirely unique. Of course there are many examples of contemporary design, but it is the peculiar mix of architectural styles in the older row homes that I found so intriguing.

san fran

Mosaic tile steps, terra-cotta containers and scrolled wrought iron create a distinct Spanish Mediterranean feel in the front entrance of this San Francisco home. Photo: Sue Gaviller

It is often referred to as Victorian, and there are certainly those elements – bay windows, steeply pitched roofs and highly decorative flourishes.

But there are also Spanish Mediterranean influences (mosaic tile, scrolled wrought iron, courtyard gardens) and some even exhibit a hint of New England Colonial – clapboard-like siding painted soft blue, ivory or beige, with white trim and paned windows.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

A pretty courtyard garden in San Francisco. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Bright fuchsia Bougainvillea and white climbing rose frame an entryway; lavender, lily of the Nile and azaleas line the pathway. Photo: Sue Gaviller

We reached fishermen’s wharf about half an hour before our dinner reservation so we had time to do a little souvenir shopping. San Francisco’s wharf isn’t near as quaint as Monterey’s – it’s big and busy and… utterly enchanting. The sound of jazz floated through the air. I assumed it was music being piped from one of the many shops or restaurants, but I discovered later it was a lone busker – with a really big amp. And of course there was the now familiar sound of sea lions – here there were dozens of rafts for the cute critters to pile onto.

 

As expected, dinner was delectable, and the taxi-ride back to the hotel quite entertaining. The driver, a big fellow with a silky smooth voice, drove for a limo-tour company and did a fine job promoting San Francisco; not that it needed promoting – I was already smitten with The City by the Bay.

We spent the following morning in Golden Gate Park – the park has a world-renowned Japanese garden which I’d always wanted to see; another reason I’d agreed to visit San Francisco. After the difficulty I had photographing Portland’s Japanese gardens I hoped to have more success here. This garden was very different – brighter and more open than the dappled shade of Portland’s moist, almost-tropical garden. I mistakenly assumed this would make it easier to shoot. It didn’t. The hazy white sky created unpleasant glare and gave everything a yellowish tone. Of course if I was a real photographer I’d have known how to compensate for this. As I looked about the gardens I noted another significant difference – whereas Portland had more coarse textured plants like Hosta and abundant large-leaved rhododendrons to break up the finer texture of pines, ferns and grasses, much of the plant material here seemed finer textured. This resulted in a somewhat busy feel to plant compositions and also contributed to my photographic woes – the fine texture created so many areas of light and dark, hence the same difficulty with harsh contrast as the dappled shade of Portland. Sigh.

Still, it was beautiful and given the Japanese philosophy of celebrating ‘place’, it’s entirely valid that a Japanese garden in coastal California would differ from that of an Oregon rainforest. Regardless, it was well worth the visit.

Photo: S Gaviller

Iris ensata adds an elegant splash of colour to rich green vegetation at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Cloud pruning is the Japanese practice of trimming trees and shrubs into cloud-like forms. Known as ‘Niwaki’, which means ‘garden tree’, it is seen throughout the gardens. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Stone lanterns are an integral part of the Japanese garden. Here a small lantern provides a solid foil for the many fine-textured elements. Photo: Sue Gaviller

fern grotto

Circle of Peace in the Fern Grotto, National Aids Memorial Grove, Golden Gate Park.
Photo: Sue Gaviller

We had both thoroughly enjoyed San Francisco and knew we’d visit again – for much longer next time. But now it was time to head to our next and final destination where we would spend our anniversary, and the last few days of our trip before embarking on the long journey home. Originally Len had suggested we stay in a big fancy resort hotel in Sonoma to celebrate our marriage milestone. However, I thought something quieter would be more relaxing and romantic. My research led me to a beautiful spa resort at Bodega Bay on the Sonoma coast – very elegant but not the least ostentatious.

We arrived mid afternoon and checked into our ocean view suite, complete with luxurious lounge furniture, a wood burning fireplace, a hot tub and a private patio. A bottle of chilled champagne awaited us – a gift from resort staff in honour of our special day. Pouring ourselves a glass of the cool effervescent nectar we relaxed on the patio and gazed out at the ocean. Tidal channels and saltwater marsh, creating a bird sanctuary, lay between us and the ocean. We could hear birdsong all day, frogs chirping all night… and sea lions barking all day and all night. Tastefully landscaped grounds, gorgeous pool, 4-star restaurant – truly this was a little piece of paradise. I didn’t think I’d ever want to leave.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Native grasses and yellow lupins along the shoreline. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Not sure if this is the invasive artichoke thistle, but it was certainly photogenic against the misty marshlands at Bodega Bay. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

The softly draping form and muted colour of dwarf ornamental grasses contrasts beautifully with the rich colour and stiff upright texture of New Zealand flax. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

This lovely coastal landscape includes handsome New Zealand tea tree (Leptospermum scoparium), Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima) and lavender cotton (Santolina chamaecyparissus). Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

A bench in a cozy nook amid ferns and fuchsias. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

A fine pair; rich dark Aeonium and soft blue-green Echeveria. Note how the foliage rosettes echo the scalloped edge of the planter. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Photo: Sue Gaviller

A statue of Poseidon, Greek God of the Sea, watches over the pool area. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Yes indeed it was hard to leave – the Oceanside walks, strolls though the bird sanctuary, wonderful fresh food,  champagne by the fireplace, sea lions swimming and diving around the pier. But alas the time soon came for us to bid the coast goodbye. Our trip had come to an end – all that was left was the four-day drive back to Calgary, and this time we weren’t taking the scenic route.

Interestingly, the only negative experiences we had on the entire trip occurred on the drive home – a resort hotel in Reno with a casino that was so smoky we could smell it in our room. The room itself was posh on the surface, but somehow seemed really seedy – dozens of faux satin and velveteen pillows on the bed, and a black, not-terribly-clean hot tub at the foot of the bed. I wondered if the adage ‘what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas’ might apply to Reno as well.

While we were out for dinner that night we received a panicked text from one of our sons who’d been looking after our house while we were away. He’d been heading out the door to leave when he saw, at the foot of the steps, a big ol’ skunk. He wasn’t sure what to do. I knew what he was thinking – a number of years ago, his friend from across the road came home late one night, startled a skunk that was hiding in the shrubbery and got himself sprayed. I’d never really had any ‘up-close and personal’ dealings with the striped villains, though I’d smelled their stench periodically in the neighbourhood. And growing up on an acreage in Southern Ontario, the family dog would run afoul of one at least once every summer. Supposedly the only way to get rid of the smell was to bathe them in tomato juice, but I don’t honestly remember doing so with any of our dogs. I was pretty sure my twenty-something son wasn’t going to be too keen on a late night tomato juice dip – and there was no way of avoiding Pepé Le Pew in his current position. I texted him back, “Pour yourself a Scotch and sit down for a bit til he’s gone,” was the best I could come up with.

Then there was the horrible meal we had in Twin Falls the following night – the vegetables were literally rotten. And our last night on the road, in Great Falls – we got bumped from our hotel room (which we’d reserved weeks before) and dumped into what was likely the worst room in the hotel; way at the back with train tracks only a few feet from our window, and a really small bed. It made us all the more eager to get home.

Late afternoon the next day we arrived home. I was greeted with the colorful blooms of moss phlox, creeping thyme, dwarf iris… and lilacs. I hadn’t missed them after all! Walking up to the front door, suitcase in hand, I stopped and closed my eyes. For a moment, the breeze carried me back to the California coast I breathed deeply and my nostrils filled with Syringa‘s sweet perfume. I was home. Though I still felt the call of the road, it was time to dig in and get to work. This was my busy season and I knew I’d have to hit the ground running….

‘Til next time,
Sue

There and Back – a Hortigeek’s Tale

Greetings fellow gardeners! I must apologize for ignoring this blog of late, but I was on vacation for a few weeks. Vacation you ask – at this time of year? What garden designer in her right mind goes AWOL for 3 weeks just as gardening season is revving up? Well I’ve never claimed to be in my right mind – although if truth be told I think I’m one of the sanest people I know. But I digress. My husband and I observed a milestone anniversary earlier this month – so to celebrate, the sommelier and the garden designer took a little road trip; touring wineries, visiting fabulous gardens and noshing on fine victuals.

I know y’all have been waiting for my ‘Colour in the Garden’ series to begin, and for my weekly Plant Pick Page to get up and running, and I promise I am working on those. In the meantime though, I thought I’d share some of the beauty I’ve recently witnessed.

When we left home on Victoria Day the leaves were just beginning to break bud – this was an unusually late spring, even for Calgary. As we drove South, the green aura of emerging leaves became more marked, and by the time we crossed the border and made our first pit-stop, everything was green and leafy, crab-apples and lilacs were blooming – spring had certainly come to Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho. While hubby filled the gas tank I looked longingly across the freeway where a hedge of lilacs bloomed – I wanted to run across four lanes of traffic and bury my face in the fluffy purple panicles, breathing in their intoxicating aroma. But that would be foolhardy.  Hopefully when we stopped for the night there would be lilacs to sniff.

When we reached Spokane, Washington where we’d stay for the night, there were indeed lilacs blooming, chestnut trees too, peonies, Siberian irises, and deep, rich, fuchsia-red hawthorn blooms. A walk after dinner afforded me the longed-for opportunity to stick my nose in some sweet lilac blossoms and inhale deeply – mmmm I do love lilacs. I hoped there would be more as we continued on our journey. The next morning my husband was up early and eager to get on the road. I was tired – taking this time away had meant weeks of hectic scheduling beforehand and I found myself resisting his attempts to schedule our time. It would take a few days for him to get the ants out of his pants and me to get the lead out of mine. However we did have appointments to keep – we were expected that afternoon at a winery in Walla Walla.

The drive through the Columbia Basin in Washington State revealed some of the most intriguing scenery I’d ever seen – strange, rolling, treeless hills that were at times bright green with agricultural crops, (often topped with huge white alien-looking windmills), at times rugged as rangeland, and at times awash with the muted colours of sagebrush, purple vetch-like flowers and tawny-hued grasses. The horticulturist (a.k.a. plant geek) in me wanted to stop the car every five minutes so I could identify each and every plant, and the designer in me wanted to photograph every landscape, natural or manmade – but more often than not, there was no safe place to pull over. This would be one of many times I’d have to settle my inner ‘hortigeek’, lest I experience every beautiful sight as a missed opportunity.

When we arrived in Walla Walla, spring had been left behind – it was early summer here; very warm, shorts-weather even. We ate lunch on the patio of a charming historic restaurant in the town-site, then headed out to wine country. The Walla Walla wine region is hot and dry – it felt stifling when we first stepped out of the car; Calgary was cold and rainy when we’d left only the day before, so the heat was a shock to the senses. I was thankful for the cool of the air-conditioned tasting room. For my husband this was the true beginning of our trip – the winery experience. It would be at least another day before I felt the same.

We made it to Portland that night after a picturesque drive on I-84 along the Columbia River Gorge, and an exquisite dinner in the hip little town of Hood River. Portland is at the northern tip of the Willamette Valley; a wide fertile valley that is home to some of the world’s finest Pinot Noirs, and boasts phenomenal gardening conditions – here Rhododendrons of every colour thrive, indeed they are native to this area. In fact everything seems to thrive here – driving along the I-5 from Portland to wine country the next day, I was thrilled at the roadside plantings of rhodos, roses, ivy, Spanish lavender and other sumptuous offerings (but no lilacs). Gorgeous gardens everywhere; even fast food chains had nicely landscaped grounds.  The hortigeek in me was plotzing again – but vineyards and wineries are beautiful places, as are the many small towns where they oft reside, so there was lots to photograph.

Rhododendrons grow everywhere in Oregon, much like Syringa and Potentilla grow in our climate. Here a coral-red rhodo grows alongside spreading juniper in a parking lot planting.  Photo: Sue Gaviller

Rhododendrons grow everywhere in Oregon, much like Syringa and Potentilla grow in our climate. Here a coral-red rhodo grows alongside spreading juniper next to a parking lot in Newberg, Oregon.
Photo: Sue Gaviller

Spanish lavender too is a common sight throughout the area. Here it is planted with other herbs in a back alley garden in McMinnville, Oregon. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Roses were in full bloom in Oregon when we were there the end of May. These three perfect white roses just begged to be photographed. Photo: Sue Gaviller

A lovely Mediterranean-inspired garden outside a restaurant where we had lunch in Dundee, Oregon. Note how the various plant forms play off each other. Photo: Sue Gaviller

A visit to Portland’s famed Japanese garden was the moment I finally relaxed – entering through the gates I felt the tensions and busy-ness of the previous weeks melt away and I was overcome with emotion. This is the aim of the Japanese Garden – to provide a haven from worldly cares. However as soon as I brought my camera out, I wasn’t so relaxed anymore – dappled shade is soothing and tranquil to be in, but not so easy to photograph in. My husband, sensing my growing frustration, related his own experience with photography as a young arts student – wherever he went he was always looking for subject material, hoping that today would be the day he took the photo; the photo of a lifetime, until one day he realized that his attempts to capture with perfect artistry that which he saw, actually undermined his ability to experience and enjoy what he saw. He was right of course – here we were in this amazing place of calm and I was anything but calm. So I put my camera away and we walked in the cool dappled shade, we listened to sweet birdsong and dancing water and we sat beside the koi pond and marveled at the serenity of it all. Yes this was the beginning of my vacation………..

Portland Japanese Garden - water basin

A peaceful stone water basin sits just inside the gates. Photo: Sue Gaviller.

Portland Japanese Garden bridge

A bridge crosses a tranquil stream in the ‘Strolling Pond Garden’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

The sound of running water, from numerous streams and waterfalls, is everywhere in the garden. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Portland Japanese Garden - ferns and rhodos

Hot pink Rhododendron pairs beautifully with bright green ferns. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Mount Ste. Helens and downtown Portland are visible through an opening in the trees – an example of the Japanese principle of ‘Borrowed Scenery’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

We visited several wineries over the course of the next few days while staying in the Portland area, but the one that most bears mention is WillaKenzie Estate Winery – I could of course rave about their fabulous Pinot’s (everybody does), or I could talk about their delightful winemaker’s assistant Gabby, a young French-Canadian woman who gave us an intimate look behind the scenes, but what I really want to rave about is the breathtaking scenery; beautifully landscaped grounds, spectacular views……….

Trees frame the view of a vineyard at WillaKenzie Estate. Photo: Sue Gaviller

willakenzie white rhodos 2

A low hedge of crisp white rhodos lines the steps at the entrance to the winery. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Flowering dogwood trees have large showy flowers which look stunning against the dark green coarse-textured leaves. This young specimen graced an estate pathway. Photo: Sue Gaviller

willakenzie sensory garden

The Sensory Garden – lavender, thyme, oregano, fruit trees, strawberry vines, mint, iris and all manner of things to delight the senses are grown in the Sensory Garden overlooking the vineyards. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Irises in the Sensory Garden. Photo: Sue Gaviller

The lovely Gabby offers us a barrel tasting of a 2013 Aliette Pinot Noir. Photo: Sue Gaviller

The lovely Gabby offers us a barrel tasting of 2012 Aliette Pinot Noir. Photo: Sue Gaviller

The patio outside WillaKenzie’s tasting room boasts a panoramic view of rolling hills, valleys and vineyards. Photo: Sue Gaviller

willakenzie cheese plate 2

Fresh baguette, fine cheeses, nuts, dried cherries and apricots were the perfect complement to a glass of wine on the patio. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Sitting at a shady table on the patio, sipping an elegant 2011 Aliette Pinot Noir and nibbling on the tasty treats that were kindly offered us, I couldn’t imagine a place more beautiful. A red tailed hawk soared out over the valley. I reached for my camera……then stopped – this moment was too perfect to waste fussing with camera settings for the umpteenth time. As if reading my thoughts the hawk swooped down into the valley and out of sight. I took a sip of wine, closed my eyes and felt the warmth of the gorgeous red nectar and the light caress of cool breezes. Could it get any better than this? I would soon find out as we continued on the next leg of our journey………..

Stay tuned for, ‘California Here We Come’.

Til then,
Sue

 

 

 

 

 

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. So……….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,
Sue

Fall Back

The words ‘fall back’ can mean to recede, withdraw or retreat – like what happens to our gardens at this time of year. Fall back is also a catchy phrase we use to remind ourselves which way to adjust our clocks when moving from daylight time to standard time. Either way my friends, gardening season is over – the autumnal equinox officially ushered in fall on September 22nd, and in less than 2 weeks it will be time to turn our clocks back. For me, this ‘turning of the clocks’, more than any other temporal landmark, signals winter’s imminent approach; when we’ll trade our garden gloves for ski gloves, and hot toddies by the fire will replace chilled wine on the patio.

We could choose to lament the passing of another garden season, or we could celebrate what’s still beautiful in our gardens, while it’s there. If you find there’s little or no beauty left in your garden, you might want to consider adding some plant material specifically for fall colour – late or long blooming perennials, foliage that changes or intensifies its colour, plants with ornamental fruit and of course some evergreen material to set it all off.

Let’s take a walk along our city streets to see what autumn splendour we can find.

Trees

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Mountain ash turns intense shades of tawny red.
Photo: Sue Gaviller

Among the most dramatic fall colour displays is the mountain ash, with foliage hues of orange, red and mahogany, and bright red or orange berries.

The American mountain ash (Sorbus americana) and showy mountain ash (Sorbus decora) have big clusters of true red berries, which are very showy.

The European mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia) has smaller berries that are more orange and is one of the last trees to turn colour in the fall.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Sorbus americana beginning to change colour. Photo: Sue Gaviller

A make-shift swing hangs from the branches of colourful mountain ash. Photo: Sue Gaviller

A make-shift swing hangs from the branches of a colourful mountain ash. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Many species of Malus (apple, crabapple) also have excellent fall colour, for example;  the small weeping ‘Rosy Glo’ turns brilliant orange, and the stately ‘Pink Spires’ turns flaming red. Others display more golden tones which contrast beautifully with the red fruit.

Malus 'Rosy Glo'

Malus ‘Rosy Glo’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Malus sp.

Malus sp. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Malus sp 2

Malus sp. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Betula (birch) too, present shades of gold, and Acer, the maple genus, includes some of the best fall colour specimens – unfortunately the gorgeous sugar maple, that king of autumn foliage, isn’t hardy here in the prairies. However, Acer ginnala (Amur maple) does well here and has fabulous fall colour. Its growth habit can be somewhat untidy when grown as a tree – it is therefore in my opinion, best grown as a large shrub.

Photo: Sue Gaviller

Acer ginnala. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Aesculus

Aesculus glabra – several young specimens in various stages of autumn colour change. Photo: Pat Gaviller

There are of course many other trees with colourful fall foliage: Aesculus glabra (Ohio Buckeye) produces stunning orange fall colour, as does Amelanchier grandiflora ‘Autumn Brilliance’ (Autumn Brilliance serviceberry).

Larix (larch) and Populus (aspen/poplar) turn golden-yellow, and the foliage of Crataegus  (hawthorn) changes to yellow, amber, orange or burgundy in the fall – the display is short-lived, but they also set pretty fruit.

The berries of Crataegus sp. are quite decorative. Photo: Sue Gaviller

The berries of Crataegus sp. are quite decorative. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Shrubs

There are countless shrubs that offer fine fall colour. Currently the most obvious is the ubiquitous Cotoneaster – I must admit I have a love-hate relationship with this shrub. What I don’t like is that I’ve inherited it – a hedge and 2 shrubs, positioned such that they require weekly pruning. Cotoneaster is prone to pests and disease (aphids, oyster shell scale, fire blight, twig blight), and the constant pruning makes it that much more susceptible. If mine had been situated differently, with more elbow room to reach their natural spread, I’d happily accept their presence in my yard. So why don’t I just remove them you ask? Well, the two shrubs are on city property and the hedge is a monster – I can’t even image the herculean effort required to remove it, or the impact it would have on the gardens. So I’m kinda stuck with all of them.

But I digress. Cotoneaster isn’t all bad – I love that it leafs out early in the spring, with dark green glossy leaves. I love that it attracts many species of birds, and I love the vibrant autumn foliage.

Brilliant hues of Cotoneaster lucidus foliage are a spectacular contrast to the silvery leaves of Elaeagnus angustifolia. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Brilliant hues of Cotoneaster lucidus foliage are a spectacular contrast to the silvery leaves of Elaeagnus angustifolia. Photo: Sue Gaviller

orange patio umbrella

Bright orange Cotoneaster foliage echoes the colour of the patio umbrella. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Viburnum trilobum berries

Viburnum trilobum. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Most species of Viburnum (nannyberry, highbush cranberry, arrowwood) also provide rich autumn colour (attractive fruit too), and the normally unassuming Euonymus alatus (burning bush) becomes show-stopping fuchsia-red in the fall. Many Cornus (dogwood) species turn various shades of red, contrasting nicely with the white berries and Spiraea (spirea) takes on fiery orange-red tones. There are even a couple of lilacs that display colourful fall foliage – Syringa patula ‘Miss Kim’ being the most notable.

Cornus sericea

Cornus sericea. Photo: Pat Gaviller

Cornus alba 'Aurea' fall foliage.

Cornus alba ‘Aurea’ fall foliage. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Spiraea japonica

Spiraea japonica ‘Macrophylla’ exhibits beautiful shades of orange, red and purple in its fall foliage.
Photo: Sue Gaviller

The orange-red autumn foliage of Spiraea japonica 'Gold Flame' is set off beautifully by the steely blue of the spruce. Photo: Sue Gaviller

The orange-red autumn foliage of Spiraea japonica ‘Gold Flame’ is set off beautifully by the steely blue of the spruce. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Some shrubs have no appreciable fall foliage colour to offer, instead providing a punch of colour with their fruit. Hippophae rhamnoides (Sea Buckthorn) has gorgeous orange fruit, Sambucus racemosa (red elder) produces beautiful red berries, Symphoricarpos doorenbosii  ‘Amethyst’ (coralberry) has pretty pink berries and many roses produce very showy hips.

Hippophae rhamnoides

Hippophae rhamnoides berries. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Sambucus racemosa berries.

Sambucus racemosa berries. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Rosa ‘Scabrosa’ produces huge cherry-red hips. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Rosa ‘Scabrosa’ produces huge cherry-red hips. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Perennials

Although herbaceous perennials by definition, die back at the end of the season, some have foliage that changes or intensifies its colour first. For example Paeonia (peony) foliage often takes on reddish tones, as does Bergenia (elephant ears), particularly the cultivar ‘Bressingham Ruby’. Arctostaphylos uva ursi (kinnickinnick), an evergreen groundcover, turns mahogany-coloured in the fall, and Ajuga reptans (bugleweed), which is semi-evergreen, intensifies its already dark hue, taking on a rich opalescence with fall’s cooler nights. Many Heuchera cultivars are also still colourful, again their foliage assuming darker, richer tones.

Peony fall foliage. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Peony fall foliage. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Heuchera 'Pinot Gris' foliage displays more prominent veining in the fall. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Heuchera ‘Pinot Gris’ still looking beautiful, its autumn foliage displaying very prominent veining. Photo: Sue Gaviller

There are even a few perennials still blooming – some are season-long bloomers; for example in my own garden, Geranium cinereum ‘Ballerina’ (Ballerina cranesbill) has a few stray blooms, as do Campanula portenschlagiana (Dalmatian bellflower) and Dianthus ‘Neon Star’ (Neon Star pinks), both profiled in a post from last year, Top Twenty of Twenty Twelve. There are also late bloomers that offer fall colour – Aster, Anemone hupehensis (Japanese anemone), Hylotelephium telephium (tall stonecrop) and Chrysanthemum (mums) to name a few. Even my Eutrochium purpureum (formerly Eupatorium purpureum and better known as Joe Pye Weed) still has a hint of colour.

Aster novae-angliae  ‘Alma Potschke'. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Aster novae-angliae ‘Alma Potschke’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Aster novae-angliae  'Purple Dome'. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Aster novae-angliae ‘Purple Dome’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Hylotelephium telephium  'Autumn Joy'. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Hylotelephium telephium ‘Autumn Joy’. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Ornamental grasses look stunning at this time of year – tall Calamagrostis cultivars (reed grass), with their straw-coloured inflorescence, nicely complement other autumn hues, and blue grasses like Helictotrichon sempervirens (blue oat grass) and Festuca glauca (blue fescue) offer cool contrast.

Calamagrostis 'Avalanche' beautifully complements Cotoneaster (left) and Viburnum trilobum 'Bailey Compact' (middle. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Calamagrostis ‘Avalanche’ beautifully complements Cotoneaster (left) and Viburnum trilobum ‘Bailey Compact’ (middle). Photo: Sue Gaviller

Blades of Panicum virgatum 'Shenandoah' grass turn bright red in autumn. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Blades of Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’ turn rich red in autumn. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Autumn can be a beautiful time in the garden – for most plants it’s their last hurrah before winter sets in. Be sure to include some of these colourful fall plants in your garden composition – it will take the sting out of summer’s end.

Happy fall y’all,
Sue

© 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.

Enjoy! 
Sue
© 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.

Pretty in Pink

Everything’s popping up pink along city boulevards, in parks and front yards – the first of the spring-flowering shrubs are strutting their stuff.  These pretty ladies are various species of the Prunus genus, a large genus that includes peaches, plums, cherries, apricots and almonds. In Calgary, the current explosion of pink blossoms comes from 3 different species.

Prunus tomentosa is first on the scene, with pale pink flowers that present before the leaves.  Commonly known as Nanking Cherry, this medium to large shrub is native to China, Korea and the Himalayas. It has been cultivated in North America since early last century, providing a drought tolerant, cold hardy (Zone 2) shrub that grows to a height and spread of 2–3 metres. It produces small tart cherries that are excellent for jams and jellies.

Prunus tomentosa

Pale pink Prunus tomentosa is a common sight on city boulevards. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Prunus triloba multiplex, the double-flowering plum, is by far the showiest of the three, its large double pastel-pink blossoms like cotton-balls along the many arching stems. A very vigorous grower, reaching 2–3 metres tall and wide, it will benefit from periodic pruning to remove any crossed or rubbing branches. This variety is sterile and doesn’t produce fruit.

Prunus triloba multiplex. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Prunus triloba multiplex. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Prunus tenella (Russian almond) is a smallish shrub with an upright vase shape and narrow green leaves that appear at the same time as the medium pink flowers. It’s compact and tidy, reaching only about 1 metre in height and spread. Very fragrant too, it is much underutilized in the urban landscape.

Prunus tinella. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Prunus tenella. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Despite their similar appearance when seen from a distance, these three shrubs have very different blossoms. Left – Prunus tomentosa. Middle – Prunus tenella. Right – Prunus triloba multiplex.  Photos: Sue Gaviller

Despite their similar appearance when seen from a distance, these three shrubs have very different blossoms. Left – Prunus tomentosa. Middle – Prunus tenella. Right – Prunus triloba multiplex.
Photos: Sue Gaviller

Design Value

Many designers eschew the use of these shrubs because they’re ‘old fashioned’. It’s true they are, but they still have design value. They’re right at home in a Naturalistic garden and are especially useful in Asian-inspired or Colonial style gardens – and they’re reliably floriferous too.

A naturalistic planting of grasses, pine and double flowering plum in a local park.  Photo:Sue Gaviller

A naturalistic planting of grasses, pine and double flowering plum in a local park.
Photo: Sue Gaviller

Prunus tomentosa is lovely in front of the Asian inspired fence I designed for a client. Photo: Sue Gaviller

Prunus tomentosa is lovely in front of an Asian-inspired fence I designed for a client. Photo: Sue Gaviller

When finished blooming, their design worth is more as a backdrop than a showpiece. Nanking cherry and flowering plum both have a lovely natural vase shape, as well as dark green, medium-coarse leaves which provide nice contrast to other brighter plants. Russian almond is much finer textured with lighter green leaves – together with its very upright branches, also provides good contrast in the landscape. And as woodies, they all offer much-desired structure to our gardens.

Perhaps it’s time to rethink these old-fashioned beauties – charm and grace come with age you know.

Til next time,
Sue

Healing Spring

It seems at this time of year I go from zero to 100 in the space of a few days. While I usually have several designs to work on over the winter, the pace is very relaxed – no pressure, just creative calm. Except I don’t pace myself – I languish throughout the early winter months, then as spring approaches I must hustle to complete my winter projects. Still, spring comes in fits and starts, so even then there’s a little breathing space……………until now. Warmer weather is finally here, and while my fellow gardeners are out playing in the dirt, I am playing catch-up so my clients can have their designs, and my landscape contractors can start getting to work…………like tomorrow. Zero to 100.

When I first became a designer, I naively thought it would be a rewarding way to make some extra money to spend on my own garden. Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do – it is very rewarding, and while I do indeed have extra money to spend on my own garden, I now have very little time.

So today I work in my garden – cleaning up the refuse that remains after last year’s early snowfall, and breathing in the burgeoning spring, late as it is. It was a difficult winter for me – not just because it was unusually long, but because life brought some unwelcome challenges. I’ll spare you the details (despite the very public nature of blogging, I am a very private person) and say only that nursing someone dear to me through a broken heart has been a very painful experience. Sobering it is too, accepting that words – no matter how wise or comforting – cannot heal. Only the passage of time can do this.

Time. Is she enemy or is she friend? She oft dawdles behind us………then gets way ahead, sometimes giving too much of herself and more frequently, not enough.

C.S. Lewis, the great Christian apologist, believed that humans are discomfited by the concept of time because we are actually timeless beings imprisoned in a time-stamped existence, and only in the ‘great beyond’ is there timeless joy. Of course the subject of this blog isn’t theology or philosophy, but I often find that when working in the garden, tending the ground, my thoughts ironically turn to the cosmos, the ethereal.

As gardeners, we tend to think of time as the enemy, or at the very least, a big ol’ thorn in our side – I mean we’re always waiting for something, right? But as I rake the blanket of leaves off awakening perennials, watching the ladybugs scurry off, it occurs to me that it is time that has brought me here, to this simple healing moment.

A Red Admiral butterfly flutters past. A pair of nesting crows coo at each other in a nearby tree. Finch-song and robin-twitter float on the breeze. Overhead a Prairie Merlin squeals, as if sounding the all-clear to trees and shrubs that it’s safe to leaf out. All around life erupts in the symphony that is spring. Yes we must make peace with time, knowing she is both harsh mistress and nurturing healer – the passing of the seasons bears witness to this.

A week or so ago my sister Pat and I took a drive out of the city. Turning a corner onto a gravel road I noticed a flurry of avian activity – as we drew closer, a smallish very bright blue bird alit on a fence post. “Bluebirds,” Pat exclaimed. I caught my breath and whispered “I’ve never seen a bluebird before.” Growing up on an acreage in Southern Ontario, one would think this bird would have been a common sight, but for reasons I can’t remember, the native Eastern bluebird had become quite rare in the area. My mother spoke of them with great reverence, and catching sight of one would be an unlikely, though extraordinary occurrence. Since moving to Calgary more than 3 decades ago I’ve spent very little time in the country, so I’ve never had the opportunity to see a Mountain bluebird either. But here they were, a whole bunch of them, apparently arguing over who got to nest in the birdhouse affixed to the fence post.

We drive on, eventually reaching a dead-end where we turn around – we find another fence-box housing a mated pair of bluebirds. The intensely hued male perches on guard a few metres away, not knowing he’s being a most co-operative photo subject. I snap a few shots. Pat snaps many more.  “The Bluebird of Happiness,” she says softly, referencing a phrase oft used in songs and literature to lift spirits and welcome a new day.

Yesterday she sent me one of her bluebird photos in an email with the message ‘May the bluebird of happiness take your pain away – & all that schlock’

Bluebird

Photo: Pat Gaviller

Time it seems has transformed my ‘winter of discontent’, at long last, into Healing Spring.

So to my fellow gardeners patiently waiting for prized perennials to rise from the ashes of winter, to all who are sick or in pain patiently waiting for time to heal you, and to my wounded loved one – may the warmth of spring wash over you, bringing new life.

……….& all that schlock.

Yours,
Sue
© 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.