Friday, July 24, 2009

City mice visit Country Gardener

On Wednesday, Sarah and I were thrilled to enjoy a Tweetup in the Ancaster garden of Country Gardener blogger and garden author Yvonne Cunnington, joined by Hamilton Tweeter Tricia of @ycswid.

It was just a few days after Yvonne hosted a garden tour, so every inch was pristine. However, my sense is that "pristine" is just your usual state of affairs for this very talented gardener.

We spent a lot of time lusting after plants, ornaments and yardage. Coming back to the city, our east-end gardens looked particularly minuscule. But then, it really left us no excuse for our slatternly gardening ways. Must dust off the edger!

For now, here's a slideshow of Yvonne's creation in July. Keep your eyes open for Blooms Day in August, when her meadow will be an explosion of bloom.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Garden Daytrips: Larkwhistle (Bruce Peninsula)

I had a chance/excuse to go to Dyer's Bay in the Bruce Peninsula to visit a garden Mecca: Larkwhistle Garden. As I was dropping my son at a friend's cottage in Georgian Bay anyway, I thought, Dyer's Bay is only a 3 hour drive from the cottage -- it was a temptation I couldn't resist! A quick phonecall reserved a spot at my favourite Bed and Breakfast in the area, Plumica and my garden road trip was on!

There are so many gardens in the Peninsula area that region gardeners have created a website: The Gardens of Grey/Bruce. Their map has over 25 listings, with descriptions and driving directions. I managed to see four gardens in one day. First one: Larkwhistle.

A drive north on Highway 6 in the Bruce Peninsula takes you to the Dyer's Bay road, where a few turns and a hand-painted sign direct you to the garden, modestly tucked away on a gravel side road.

Patrick Lima and his partner John Scanlon have worked this garden since the mid-70s, when they took a bus and hitchhiked to the isolated property to see it for the first time. Since then, they have achieved garden magic with their tenacity and creativity, and made Larkwhistle an exquisite garden gem.

The first time I saw Larkwhistle, many years ago, was on a misty Labour Day weekend, the last day the garden was open. I have a vague memory that they warned me that there was nothing really left to see.

However, after a dry summer that had turned most gardens brown and crispy, here spectacular golden California poppies and purple violas covered the base of many of the garden beds in a living Persian carpet. Late-blooming roses and other perennials completed the picture, which was impressive even at summer's last gasp. It was the first time I'd seen poppies like this. I was bowled over. Patrick told me he'd planted the California poppies once, and never had to plant them again.

The poppies still reign. Yet, seeing the garden now in midsummer, when all the rest of the garden beauties fight to take centre stage, is something to behold.

One aspect of the garden is the way they have incorporated water into the space by way of above-ground concrete ponds, some in 5-sided geometric shapes. Frogs find their way up, and sun themselves on the lily pads.

While the garden was initially mostly ornamentals, with a vegetable plot to one side, Patrick Lima has interplanted more and more vegetables into the main garden in recent years, beautifully and creatively, in ways that highlight the decorative qualities of edibles.

These green peppers look like dancers on stage, while surrounding audience members of flat and curled parsley look on.

Highly ornamental edibles, such as curly and narrow kale command a central position, with annuals and perennials both amongst and around.

This checkerboard effect with purple and green lettuces was delightful.

Garden areas or rooms are defined by simple cedar structures, weathered to a soft grey, that provide a framework for the plant material. Hidden seating areas are sometimes part of this framework, as in their hidden white garden, which is tucked to one side.

Every pathway provides a continual flow of colour, texture and form. I always find new garden pairings or new plants to try when I visit Larkwhistle.

One of the dazzlers in mid July are the multiple groupings of robust Foxtail Lilies (Eremurus), providing a hot colour jolt and a great vertical accent.

Two large low concrete square ponds give a grand expanse of water to reflect the sky and punctuate the greenery, and give a friendly space for fish, frogs and other passing wildlife.

Annual pale pink poppies and penstemon bloom against a backdrop of trees, which nestle along the road edge.

Yarrow, sage and delphiniums take the stage, while the cedar structure provides a counter-point. Nature and structure blend beautifully in Larkwhistle. A treat for a garden day trip. Drive from Toronto is a fairly leisurely four hours. But why not make a weekend of it (Plumica is one of many great B&Bs)? Then you can explore more of the gardens in the area, as I did. More gardens to come.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Our little 0.0018 acre

We have been lucky enough to gain the use of two unclaimed 4x10' allotment plots in a local community garden. My husband and I haven't planted veggies on any scale since we foolishly gave up our Leslie Street Allotment plot when we bought our first house 25 years ago. I don't count an occasional cherry tomato and few pots of herbs.

This late in the season, it's a real experiment in "second sowing" vegetable planting. What did we plant?

First, a couple of 'Sun Gold' tomatoes (Lycopersicon lycopersicum 'Sun Gold') that volunteered in my garden, as well as four heirloom tomato varieties from our friend Karyn Wright of Terra Edibles. (To say that Sarah and I went to high school with Karyn doesn't go far enough.)

Above, you see the t'maters with a pop-bottle drip irrigation system idea inspired by Chicago Garden by Mr. Brown Thumb. The garbage strike is a perfect time to be finding new ways to reduce, reuse and recycle.

There are five kinds of peppers and some tender and perennial herbs – whatever looked alive at the picked-over veg and herb section of the Loblaws garden centre.

And seeds from East End Garden Centre. Do you know how difficult it is to find seeds at this time of year? But East End had them aplenty. We chose three types of beans, peas, carrots, beets, radishes (interplanted with the two root veggies), two kinds of leaf lettuce and dill. At this stage, anything with a growing season of 60-70 days seemed safe.

So watch this space for success or less. (BTW, Sarah's plots, planted in May and June, look very lush and lovely.)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Bluffs Garden Tour: Highlights

On Sunday, the Bluffs Garden Tour organized by the Scarborough Horticultural and Garden Club allowed us to see five very different gardens.

Of course, the Bluffs being the bluffs, in a couple of them the star performer, as above, was the view. Seeing how the turf shelfs out along the coast, like something from a Roadrunner cartoon, you don't want to venture too close to the edge. Behind me, as I'm shooting this, is a large tree with a woman clasped tightly to it.

This Forever View (and the unshown kidney-shaped pool and carpet of crisp, green lawns leading up to it) is attached to the garden of a multi-million-dollar home. Nevertheless, it contained a few ideas for real gardens by real people.

This twig bench, for example, would be at home in any garden. (Though I would probably angle it to face Lake Ontario on the horizon in that patch of white in the background.)

Another idea worth adapting is the use of stacked logs, here giving the garden shed more presence when used as fencing material. At a recent presentation, I saw an arbour sandwiched between slopes of stacked wood, a surprisingly simple yet dramatic piece of garden architecture.

In the Bluffs area, if the striking topography isn't bluffs it's ravines. Just five minutes from bustling Kingston Road, the back yard of this grand, new-built house on a keyhole cul-de-sac feels miles from the city. This picture doesn't do justice to its sense of openness and space.

On another ravine, this charming cottage garden is set on terraces edged with towering woods. Besides a sunken garden with cascading beds of roses, veronica, anemone and clematis (all principally between blooming periods when we toured), the surprise here was to turn a corner and discover an immaculately tended putting green, complete with bent grass.

The included a wide variety of styles. The last garden we visited depended on annuals for colour, anchored by a few perennial and shrubby specimens. The feature of this garden though was its avian theme, ornamented by bird sculptures and feeders.

Despite a yard full of people, a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker swooped in for some suet as we visited. My camera wasn't fast enough.

Nothing else in the tour compared with the star of the show, the first garden we visited. I'd love to go back, as this was a gardener's garden filled with treasures. Its beauty simply transcends my photography skills. Or perhaps there are some gardens that just require you to be there.

In about 26 years, the gardener has transformed his 50-foot suburban lot into a shady space filled with many varieties of Japanese maple, ribboned with hostas, Cimicifuga, ferns and other shade tolerant species. A massive Doublefile Viburnum (Viburnum plicatum) is the opening gambit at you enter the back space, and unusual varieties of clematis clamber up roses or fences. I could do a feature on this garden alone, but I'd need better pictures.

So, next year, keep the Bluffs Garden Tour on your radar.

Monday, July 20, 2009

To tchotchke or not to tchotchke

As in life, so am I when it comes to garden ornamentation: a relativist. (Even in my relativism, I'm with my pal Petronius, who said: All things in moderation, including moderation.)

Purists have it in for tchotchke, knickknacks or bric-a-brac in the garden. Let's say, they have a low QQ (Quirk Quotient). As a relativist whose QQ borders on high, I say, if you like cute, go for it. It isn't the what, but the how that counts.

My friend L-A has the right idea. She likes cute ornamental birdhouses. But rather than scattering them around the garden, she has a) created a cohesive collection, and b) grouped them for impact on a feature wall.

The effect is charming. It does what a good ornament in the garden is meant to to: draw the eye and give it a place to rest. It also makes a virtue of a long stretch of fencing beside her pool.

By contrast, in an otherwise attractive garden I saw on a recent tour, cute little oddments were regularly inserted every couple of feet; a mini inukshuk beside a Victorian-style plaque beside a smiling pottery frog. Unfortunately, this bitty approach distracted from the lovely garden. It was a bad case of bric-a-brac-arrhea.

Nobody's perfect. For instance, it's possible to cram way too many plants into a garden. I raise my hand here; yes, I am a plantaholic, working hard to curb my impulses. With plants, as with the rest of our garden décor, we'd all be wise to keep these verbs in mind: unify, edit, arrange – repeat.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Blooms Day: Mid-July in Toronto

"Better lit than Neva" is the punchline of a long, involved story about Rasputin. I won't go into that here. I'll just say that holidays and Harry Potter had something to do with my being a day late for July's Garden Bloggers Bloom Day.

July is the time when my climbing rose Rosa 'New Dawn' is in full flight. 2009 has been a particularly lush year for this rose. The arbour is weighed down with blooms.

On the other hand, with so much vegetative matter, a rose like this needs lots and lots of moisture. Water runs through my sandy garden like a sieve. And when 'New Dawn' doesn't get what she wants, her buds dry on the vine without falling. So you get pink froth and brown frizz, "blooming" side by side. As our grandmother would have said, "It spoils it, doesn't it?"

July is also when the Asiatic lilies shine. Unsure the name of this pink variety I picked up on sale as bulbs at the end of a season a couple of years ago in a big-box store. It's certainly doing well this year, and I keep hoping to like it more. But there's something vicious about this shade of pink in real life.

Speaking of pinks, a very lusty crop of brilliant orange 'Enchantment' lilies is clashing enthusiastically with all the pinks. I also have Asiatics that are now finished, including a pink-and-white 'Lollypop' (which I do like) and yellow 'Connecticut King.' The Oriental lilies are in bud.

In the front garden, this mystery daylily has crashed the noisy party all the Hemerocallis fulva are having now. I'd be thrilled if it would stay. It's doubly a mystery, as it sprang from a clump of unlabelled daylilies I picked up on sale at a nursery years ago. Has it self-seeded? Is this the new 'Helen Battersbyi' daylily, or can someone ID it for me?

How do I love thee, 'Annabelle' hydrangea? Let me count the ways.

Those are the main events here in a small city garden in the east end of Toronto. To see what's blooming in mid-July in gardens around the world, visit May Dreams Gardens, where on the 15th of every month, Carol invites garden bloggers to share their experience.

Toronto garden on the newsstands

A lustworthy Toronto garden I've seen twice on the Riverdale garden tour – and still dream about – is the cover story on the Summer 2009 issue of Canadian Gardening magazine. If Sarah were here, I'd get her to Tweet about it. Wish I had pictures to post, but I do suggest you have a peep at the magazine to see what (Toronto garden) dreams are made of.

It's so amazing, it would be easy to dismiss as a designer garden, not "real gardens by real people." But the neat thing is that while the owner is a designer (albeit textiles) she and her husband did it all themselves. Well, I think they probably had help with the pool and whirlpool.

If you have time (and don't mind sitting through a cute Caramilk commercial), this little video from the 2008 Through The Garden Gate tour in Riverdale gives you a glimpse of the garden, along with interviews of the gardener and a couple of other gardens on the tour.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Skies: That rare urban commodity

Returning to Toronto after a road trip can awaken you to the constrained view of the sky from our little patches of urban heaven. This is especially so in the older parts of Toronto, such as our street, with their heavy canopies of green. (Though they're a good thing, cooling our homes and gardens.)

Office buildings downtown may scrape the sky, but they don't scrape off much of it for us down here in their shadow. Most pedestrians keep their eyes averted or ahead, not looking at much above the walk sign. Even when we find ourselves in more wide-open spaces, such as along University Avenue or The Danforth, few of us remember to look up, look waaaaaay up.

Spending part of each summer beside the miles-wide expanse of the St. Lawrence River near Québec City always makes me want to become a card-carrying member of the Cloud Appreciation Society. The river and the mountains on either side covered in transpiring trees make for lofty, architectural cloud cover.

The long drive there and back gives me further time for cloud gazing. When the clouds are heavy with rain and jagged with lightning, as they were both ways this time, they can offer astonishing viewing.

Still, there are great perspectives here in the city for contemplation of the sky: Bridges, balconies, parks, the boardwalk, Toronto Island, the Leslie Street Spit, to name a few.

As a gardener, I think of the sky as the foil for everything in the garden; sometimes white or grey, sometimes a paintbox of blues. It's the garden ornament that city gardeners too often ignore, so I try to keep my eyes from being fixed at eye level. A garden arch, a weathervane or birdhouse, a clematis blanketing the roof of a garden shed; there are lots of ways gardeners can rise to the occasion to incorporate the sky into their garden plans.

How about you? How do you work with the sky? Suggestions welcome. You could say, the sky's the limit.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Edible Container Garden Show, Aug. 8th

This is the blog equivalent of a re-tweet: The Withrow Park Farmers’ Market and Toronto Balconies Bloom introduce their first collaborative Edible Container Garden Show, on Saturday Aug. 8, 2009, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., rain or shine, at the Withrow Park Farmers' Market.

Participation is open to all urban gardeners, from 3 to 103. Eligible containers must be salvaged, recycled or DIY handcrafted, and 70% of the plant material must be edible (either whole or in part). What to grow is limited only by your imagination: grow a mini herb garden in a shoe or an edible flower garden in an old car tire. The size is up to you, but we prefer you use sustainable transportation options: wheelbarrow, wagon, bike trailer, bundle buggy, TTC, carpool…

Help spread the enthusiasm and experience for growing edible containers by exhibiting your funky bucket of homegrown eats at this first-time event!

Send your submission by Friday, July 24th with a description of your design, materials used, motivation behind the design, and a couple of sentences about yourself and your urban small space gardening experience to contact [at] torontobalconiesbloom [dot] ca, listing “ECG show” in the subject line.

Volunteers are needed to prepare the event and on the day of, so if you can help, please contact Roberta at withrowpfm [at] gmail [dot] com.

The Withrow Park Farmers' Market is one block south of the Danforth, between Carlaw and Logan. Closest subway stops are Chester and Pape. Visit for more information about WPFM.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

After you're gone? What survives in the garden?

Poppies, Siberian Iris, Chives and Peony putting up the good fight against Big Bluestem grass

There's a saying that a garden doesn't outlive the gardener who plants and tends it. Sadly, that's mostly true. I've learned this the hard way. But, happily, there are a few exceptions, if you plant the right plants.

My country garden is attached to a small house that was rented out for a few years. With me not on the premises as garden slave, the results of prior hours and hours of tending and weeding disappeared over time. Where once were gardens there was grass and weeds. Mostly grass. (This was before I discovered the wonderful power of mulch)

I have a great deal of a particularly lusty form of grass: Big Bluestem, a twitch grass. There's nothing it likes better than to grab hold of a freshly weeded patch of soil. The stems are thick, and they grow in clumps, colonizing the next square foot, and the next and the next, until, where garden once reigned, all you see are amber waves of grass. Most perennials don't have the oomph to muscle out guys like this. A once large perennial garden simply had disappeared.

However, certain garden survivors kept up the fight and were still visible: daylilies, siberian irises, poppies, peonies, chives, and a clump of nepeta (ornamental catnip). I've spent a good part of the last few weeks attempting to re-claim this garden, liberating these tough die-hards from the surrounding grass.

At first I wasn't sure how to tackle it. There was so much grass and these clumps were just little islands in a high sea of greenery. Should I just dig up the clumps and re-plant them in new beds somewhere? That seemed onerous. The grass was over waist high. How to even get to the plants and get in there with a fork? Finally I decided I'd take the easy way out, and probably the most efficient way. Just kill the grass where it stands, and for this I am using my perfected Newspaper Shock and Awe Smothering Technique.

1. Get a huge pile of newspapers

2. Walk on the grass to flatten it. Really smunch it down. (With tall grass like I have, it's kind of fun)

3. Pile up the newspapers very thickly everywhere the plants aren't. Everything goes in. Phonebooks, magazines and catalogs are fine here. I've used IKEA and Home Hardware catalogues, brown paper bags.

4. Use rocks and planks of wood to hold down the newspapers. Cover with mulch later.

5. Don't use mulch till you know you have won the battle with the underlying grass. Grass will try to take hold in anything organic, so keep only inert sterile stuff on it to smother it first. Maybe for a whole growing season.

From now on, I am a wiser gardener, and a believer, where mulch is concerned, so the grass onslaught won't be as fast as last time. But even mulch is no permanent guarantee. So, if you'd like your garden to outlive you, make sure you plant daylilies, siberian irises, poppies, nepeta and the other old standby, peonies. And, if you just want to weed a little bit less, you won't go wrong with these tenacious wonders. Just use tons and tons of mulch.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Love/Hate: Tawny Daylilies

I'll own to being lazy. It's mostly on account of my curmudgeonly front yard.

I say "English cottage garden" and it snarls back with sieve-like feet upon feet of inert yellow sand. (Thank you, Lake Iroquois.) I think "peonies" – it hands me a thirsty webwork of impenetrable Norway maple roots. And shade. Lots of shade.

So anything that stands up to such curmugeonliness gets cheers from me.

Which brings me to today's Pollyanna, the plain old orange daylily, tiger daylily or ditch lily, Hemerocallis fulva. It runs through my garden with a happy tra la la la la. And when I say runs, I mean scampers, sprints, lopes, tears, gallops and bounds. To keep it in check, I am constantly yanking up shoots and roots. When it blooms, all is forgiven. But it's over so quickly.

Recently, from the always (and all ways) entertaining Paghat's Garden, I was awakened to the fact that many of the daylily parts I've been tossing on the compost heap are edible. Those young shoots and roots and both the flower buds and spent blooms all have food value. A little more research found this article on how to eat daylilies on eHow. Hmmm, something to chew on.

But, really, the tawny daylily is a poor cousin to the many, many, many variations that busy hybridizers have been creating. These days, it's not the vigor of the roots that counts, it's the vigor of the flowering scapes – with their mind-boggling numbers of buds. Think about it: a scape bred to produce 31 buds would mean nearly a whole month of bloom – not just the week or so my tawnies give me.

If I weren't so lazy, I'd be digging up all the tawnies right now (well, right after they finish blooming) and replacing them with something better, sturdier, bloomier and quite possibly fragrant. Of course, I'd have be sure no roots had escaped my spade before planting anything new. Sigh.

To prove I'm not a totally monogamous daylily lover, here's a rare bloom of H. 'Gentle Shepherd'.

The Ontario Daylily Society has a whole page of Canadian hybridizers and growers to choose from. I just expended a lot of drool browsing through a couple of Southern Ontario sites, The Potting Shed near Dunnville and We're In the Hayfield Now east of Bowmanville.

It's the right time of year to see daylilies in bloom, to meet the ones you love face to face. The Potting Shed is open for viewing daily, 9 to 5, from May to the end of September. We're In the Hayfield Now has a special open garden at the end of this month, July 24, 25 and 26 from 10am to 4pm. Wish I could be there.

Meanwhile, I'll resort to lazy-faire and, like Scarlett O'Hara, I'll think about that tomorrow.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Discovery: Cornell Campbell Farm

Edit: The pink peony we found on site is probably Cora Stubbs, an old variety, highly scented.

A while back, we wrote about discovering the recently installed Scarborough Community Garden on Kingston Road. The space provided for the garden came from the grounds of the historic Cornell Campbell Farm next door.

William Cornell settled here from Rhode Island in the U.S. in 1799 when the site was, as the plaque says, "two lakefront lots." He helped hack out a path for Kingston Road. Many of his descendants played a role in the history of Scarborough. In the 1940s, the farm transferred to the female line, the family of Helen and Albert Campbell.

I took copious pictures of this great garden setting. In fact, trying to decide which few images to post made me procrastinate about writing up the farm. Then I learned how to do a slide show.

A quick walk about the gardens

Sarah and I visited just after one of June's torrential rains. The peonies along the long driveway, laden with raindrops (and bees), were a bit of a distraction from the main event. But, at the end of it, set well back from busy Kingston Road, we found a fine example of a Southern Ontario Victorian brick farmhouse, along with an attractive cedar plank barn.

At the front of the farmhouse, facing south, is an avenue of flowerbeds each centred by masses of peonies. While just a touch past their peak, and battered by rains, they still made an impact. Some were intensely fragrant, and we're trying to uncover their identity.

Majestic horse chestnuts (Aesculus hippocastanum) were the featured tree, probably the same vintage as the house. At least one weathered specimen had a young tree planted beside it to ensure continuity.

On the west side of the house are more contemporary plantings. Tucked into the forested edge are two strikingly paired Japanese maples (Acer japonicum or Acer palmatum ): a red and a gold, identities unknown. A little further along is a perennial bed where we discovered the towering Iris spuria we wrote about earlier.

Continuing our full circuit around the house, we came to an open space with tables and benches for education or picnics. As of last year, the City of Toronto now owns the farm, and has plans to use it as a horticultural education site and demonstration garden. I'm looking forward to seeing it develop.

See it for yourself – plus visit Bluffs gardens

Cornell Campbell House is being used for events by the Scarborough Garden & Horticultural Society. In fact, July 19th, noon to 4:30 is the Scarborough group's garden tour featuring gardens in the Bluffs. Tickets are $10 and will only be available from the Scarborough Community Centre on the day of the tour. As part of the day, you can come back to the farm for a tour and a tea. On many counts, it would be well worth the visit.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Fauxpiary and other holiday snaps

Holiday garden sightings from the sublime to le ridicule. Seen on the road on the way to Ottawa, at a rest stop somewhere in the Haliburton Highlands, Ontario.

Seen on the road on the way to Quebec City, at a McDonald's somewhere near Berthierville, Québec. Monsieur Ronald and chums in a fauxpiary tableau. Crazy, but as it made me stop and whip out the camera, perhaps it just might work.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Happy Fourth of July (Rose)

To all our neighbours south of the longest friendly border in the world, I wish you a happy Independence Day. Here to celebrate with me is Rosa 'Fourth of July', complete with broad stripes and bright stars. All you need to complete the picture is a blue sky. And, as it's a climber, that might not be difficult. Unfortunately, it was raining when this beautiful rose and I were introduced, or I'd have added the blue myself. Enjoy!

Friday, July 03, 2009

"What, this old thing?" or What to Wear in the Garden

While looking to acquire some desired object--probably electronic--on Craigslist lately I came upon the wonderful item of clothing pictured above. (names have been obscured to protect the innocent)

What a revelation. I instantly realized I've been going about my sartorial choices all wrong. The ugly truth: How can I consider myself a real gardener when I have never found, let alone worn, just the right Weeding Dress.

Me, I usually throw on some old t-shirt and pants. For hand coverage, I'm fond of latex gloves--recycled ones from hair-dying episodes.

As for shoes I admit that the need for gardening shoes sadly encourages my frugal, never-throw-out-anything tendencies to get out of hand. Any pair of runners or flat shoes that can no longer be worn in public on respectable occasions gets put into the "Still Handy For Gardening" pile. Danger word is "handy". The pile is quite large. Sometimes I trip over it.

Of course, after seeing the ad above, all this has changed. Now there is: The Weeding Dress. What was I thinking all those years? I will no longer be scruffy and unkempt when neighbours walk by and see me standing with fists of grass in both hands and baskets overflowing. No, I will not! From now on I will be breathtaking, glowing with (strapless) sartorial perfection, in my new Weeding Dress.

"Don't you look nice today," neighbours will say, admiringly, "Don't you worry that you'll get grass stains on that?"

And I will smile beatifically, wave my glov-ed hands towards my flowing garment and say, "What, this old thing?" Yes. That is what it will be like when I have my own, my very own Weeding Dress.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

A Lawn is a Turf is a Groundcover is a Meadow

Getting to know many bloggers in California has introduced me to the concept of lawn controversy: the fact that there is a strong and vocal movement against having lawns altogether.

One of my first posts about lawns here got a heated comment from Twitter friend and California blogger Billy Goodnick. He described it as unleashing both barrels, as I recall, and he certainly got his point across.

It makes sense that in severely water-challenged California, a strict dependence on lawns in the landscape is generally not a good thing. When I visited California in the 60s, I recall that among the things that impressed me was the lack of grass lawns. They were growing some other stuff that stayed low and flat. Not sure what it was. Maybe it's considered just as bad as grass now.

For myself, here in Ontario, where rainfall is generally predictable through the growing season, I have to admit that I love the soothing, greening presence of a lawn, especially late in the day when the sun is low and the green positively glows.

The lawn outside my country house is dappled with sun and shade in the late afternoon and early evening; seeing a robin hop about on it is one of my garden delights.

My definition of Lawn is not the traditional one, however. It's not made solely of grass, it's a mixed groundcover. It isn't watered or chemically fertilized, and it's created mostly of plants that simply grew there themselves.

Perhaps a long time ago someone sowed some lawn seed. The building is a former one-room schoolhouse, and the land around it was the playground. Today, the lawn is a mix of grass, wild strawberries, white clover, dandelions, plantain, creeping charlie, devil's paintbrush, moss, viper's bugloss, daisies and other wildflowers. It's my kind of lawn: a healthy, mown meadow.

It Ain't a Lawn, It's a Meadow
The more species you have in your groundcover or meadow, the healthier it is: clover adds nitrogen, withstands drought and stays green longer than grass. Its flowers provide a sea of pollinator opportunities. Wild strawberries and dandelions (apart from attracting pollinators) are dynamic accumulators, bringing nutrients from the subsoil to the topsoil.

My advice to anyone who still wants to have a lawn: Forget a monoculture, made only of grasses, and invite other plants to make up your groundcover. Start with white clover, and re-seed bare patches with that. Embrace your dandelions! They offer the earliest source of nectar in the spring for our disappearing pollinators.

The lawn that I do have in the country is disappearing fairly regularly as I increase my flower and shrub beds. However, I will always have some form of lawn on my property. Mowing the meadows is a necessity in order to stop the creeping growth of shrubs I battle, like the sumach and lilac which would colonize every square inch of space if I let them.

About Watering
I wouldn't dream of watering my lawn, even if my well had enough water to do so. (It doesn't.) Lawns are capable of surviving drought in our climate.

In August, when lawns get crunchy from the heat and lack of water, they are still alive: just dormant. It's important for lawn-owners to accept this dormant period as normal. A yellow lawn doesn't mean a dead lawn. Don't water! Simply wait for the September rains to green them up again.

The Meadow-ing of City Parks
I'm very happy that the parks department in Toronto long ago stopped the practice of using herbicides and fertilizers in the parks and roadsides. We were marvelling at the masses of fragrant clover in bloom yesterday in the park adjacent to my community garden in East York. Bees were having a field day.

Even with all this praise of meadows, there are places and spaces where lawns are just the wrong thing to do: California and other drought-stricken climes seem to be those places, and I salute the landscapers and gardeners who are doing their part there to De-Lawnify the place.

Check out Billy Goodnick and gang in their music video,"Takin'Out the Grass." Billy's the one juggling the sod. (warning: you won't be able to get this tune out of your head for a while!)

O, Canada: For gardeners

Red leaf saved from falling
Originally uploaded by mumble bee
I was born in England, but my home is Canada. On this Canada Day, here are five reasons that, as a gardener, I'm glad to be Canadian:

1. The Maple Leaf, our emblem dear, the maple leaf forever.
I love that our national symbol is something living and growing; I especially love that it has the strength and endurance of a tree.

2. Winter.
Yes, in the midst of summer heat, it's useful to remember how many things thrive in our gardens because they get a cold, winter dormancy. No peonies without snow. Keep reciting that as you shovel.

3. Water.
Soon to be Earth's most precious commodity, and in Canada this essential resource exists in abundance. Pray we don't squander it.

4. Space.
Ditto – both our arable land and our natural ecosystems.

5. Diversity.
First, of landscapes. Our country also stretches from sea to shining sea, with terrain from maritime to mountains, arctic to desert. (Yes, even desert. See: Trying to generalize about gardening in Canada is like trying to generalize about the whole Northern Hemisphere. That makes it more fun.

Next, of peoples. Yesterday, at Sarah's allotment, we saw our city's diversity in what was growing in other gardens, from Roma tomatoes to bok choy, amaranth and okra. That makes it not only more fun but more delicious.

Happy Canada Day, Canadian gardeners. What would you add?
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