Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Ethical bouquets

With all the open houses and cocktail parties to attend at this time of year, think twice before you buy flowers for your host or hostess.

An increasing number of the roses and other cut flowers we buy have been imported from large flower plantations in Latin America and Asia, where workers, primarily women and children, are often exposed daily to chemicals long banned in North America.

According to Sierra Eco, an organization that certifies farms in Equator and Colombia that have adopted environmentally-sound production methods and adhere to high safety standards and working conditions, many workers often have no protective gear; they are bare-armed, with no gloves or face masks. Because many can't read the labels on the containers of the chemicals they use, they are not even aware of the hazards.

It's our responsibility as consumers - and conscientious gardeners and earth-lovers! - to avoid flowers produced under these conditions. Buy flowers via Sierra Eco, or from Gaiam Flowers, which certifies their flowers as organic, biodynamic, veriflora and/or green label.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Upside down Christmas tree

Honestly, what is the deal with these upside-down Christmas trees I'm seeing everywhere? More room for presents? A way to differentiate oneself from the neighbours? I suppose I can't argue against them on the basis of being contrary to nature - your basic Christmas tree does that already - but really: an upside-down tree. I know someone's going to tell me that it's a throwback to a 12th century European tradition, but so were the Crusades. Let's not get carried away.

I prefer to think of my tree in less commercial terms (even if it does end up covered in gobs of spray-painted macaroni ornaments):
For centuries, evergreens have played an important role in Winter celebrations. Carried into homes and adorned with apples and other fruits, they were set up as symbolic idols. Such decorations were intended as food offerings to the tree and may be where the modern custom of placing gifts beneath the Christmas tree originated. According to some sources, the Christmas tree is actually a throwback to "Yggdrasil," the Great Tree of Life mentioned in Norse mythology.

Many pagan festivals used trees to honor their gods and spirits. In Northern Europe the Vikings considered the evergreen as symbol and a reminder that the darkness and cold of Winter would end and the green of Spring would return. (Emphasis mine.)
But to each their own. If you must, you can buy your upside-down tree here.

Monday, November 28, 2005


It's kind of lame that I've never visited Heronswood, Dan Hinkley and Robert Jones' Kitsap Penninsula, Washington nursery, especially since we're only a couple hours away.

I heard Dan speak at a Vancouver Rose Society talk a few years ago - he's a delightful speaker. And from what I've heard and seen in photographs, the garden is delightful, too.

While I'm tempted to wait until the spring to visit, winter might be a good time as well. I love seeing gardens in the winter when they're so bare-bones. It's a great way to look at the underlying structure in a garden without being over-wowed by flowers and foliage. And, of course, it's a great time to check out plants for winter interest.

Read a NY Times story on Heronswood here.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Pyramidal European Hornbeam

The garden in our new townhouse comes "fully landscaped;" I tried to see if they'd just leave it unplanted, but apparently it's not an option they've ever heard of. Anyway, the tree that the landscape designer chose for our yard is a Pyramidal European Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus ‘Fastigiata’). It wouldn't be my first choice of tree; it looks kind of... bleh. And I'm currently enamoured of the Coral Bark Maple (Acer palmatum 'Sango-kaku') in my mom's yard because it looks so lovely in the winter garden. But I'm willing to give the hornbeam a chance. Has anyone had any experience with this tree?

Photo of the hornbeam borrowed from Charlies Creek Nursery.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Christmas-season houseplants

Around this time of year, the number of plants inside my house nearly doubles. Succulent planters come indoors for the winter, as do the houseplants that live outdoors during the summers. Then there are the seasonal plants: amaryllis, paperwhites, poinsettia.

I'm more of an outdoor-plant person, so I get kind of nervous when I'm charged with keeping indoor plants alive and well. Alive I can usually handle, but well - not so much. So I turned to the Royal Horticultural Society, and lo and behold, an article on "Christmas" houseplants: Cyclamen persicum hybrids, Euphorbia pulcherrima (poinsettia), Rhododendron simsii (indoor or Indian azalea), and Solanum capsicastrum. Better keep that bookmarked.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

163 Things to Compost

Just when you think you know everything there is to know about composting, someone says, "hey you, why aren't you throwing that freezer-burned fish on the compost?"


Marion Owen, creator of PlanTea, has a list of 163 things you can compost in her latest issue of the UpBeet Gardener newsletter. Hair clippings, wood ashes, and old pasta are just a few of the bizarre things on her list.

But back to that fish: has anyone ever tried this? I was always told that meat and meat products have no place in the compost.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Solar powered fountain

This solar-powered fountain makes so much sense. Not only is it eco-friendly, it's also practical. I'm sure I'm not the only one who has faced a lack of electrical outlets in the garden! Not to mention the Problem of Cords.

This particular design isn't really my style so doesn't make it to my wish list, but is nevertheless a fabulous invention.

Via Treehugger.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Japanese garden style

One of these days, our new townhome will be finished (it's currently six weeks behind). Although you can't tell from this floorplan, in addition to the deck on the third floor, there's a small front garden and a slightly larger back garden. By larger, I'm talking approximately 13' x 13' (3.96m x 3.96m). Acreage this is not. But it's all mine mine mine! Oh, and Ben's.

The wall which faces the garden is floor-to-ceiling window, so, to smooth the transition between indoor and out, I want to echo the interior's minimalist aesthetic outdoors. It's going to be a departure for me because I love plants - especially buying new ones! - and I'm going to be forced to restrain myself.

I'm interested in exploring Japanese-influenced garden design because I think the aesthetic would lend itself well to our new space. Garden Design magazine has a good interview with landscape architect and former Toyko resident Marc Peter Keane, who offers advice ("Keep the palette simple...Use honest materials") and - most important in these dreary winter months - inspiration.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Bulb thieves

Over at Takoma Gardener, Susan reveals her secret to detering squirrels from stealing her bulbs: she scatters red pepper flakes over her bulb plantings. Brilliant!

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The child-friendly garden

Often, just a quick glimpse at a house reveals whether its residents include children. Kids have a tendency to make their mark: vagrant toys and boisterous games have a deleterious effect on perennial borders, while the brightly hued durable plastic that is typical of children’s play structures doesn’t make for the most elegant of garden furnishings. One can’t help but wonder, “Is it possible to have children and the garden of your dreams?”

Tim Folliott and Lisa McDonald, the couple behind a residential garden design and maintenance company called Urban Landscapes, are proof that you can do both.

The lots are narrow in their family-friendly neighbourhood just east of Main Street in Vancouver. Still, with careful planning and the odd shared resource – such as the communal tire swing that hangs from one of the ornamental cherry trees lining the cul-de-sac – there’s more than enough room for child’s play and great garden design.

Tim and Lisa bought their 1912 character home here in 1993 and welcomed the first of their two sons (Matt, 10, and Alex, 9) shortly after. At the time, a concrete driveway stretched from alley to attached garage, almost entirely consuming the backyard. Their first project was to remove the driveway, and replace it with an island lawn and simple beds.

“It turned out to be the first of many lawns,” Tim says. “Because it’s such a small, high-traffic area, any lawn we put in was just ground into mud. With active kids and the dog, the lawns just wouldn’t survive.”

These days, the only grass you’re likely to see on this property is ornamental. The lawn has been replaced by wide, pebbled pathways and curving beds. The gravel paths balance the lushness of the plantings: like pavement, gravel provides a resting place for the eye, but is softer and more fluid than conventional concrete or stone.

“I find that the smaller the garden, the more non-plant material (hardscaping such as paving, fencing, or steps) there should be, proportionally,” Tim says. “It looks better, it functions better. It’s almost counterintuitive, but it’s what works.”

Their lot is only 36 m long by 7.6 m wide (117 ft. by 25 ft.) but seems larger due to careful planning. And although it isn’t immediately apparent that two boys and most of the neighbourhood kids use it, the entire garden was designed to provide places for the children to play.

“There’s the tree house, the kids’ patio with the kid-sized Adirondack chairs, the basketball court, the hard-surface play area beneath the deck – but there is also plenty of garden in between, and that’s all very deliberate,” Tim says. By designating specific-use areas, the space succeeds in being both functional and attractive.

For example, the kid’s patio was placed where the afternoon sun hits – an important consideration in a shady yard. “The sun comes around the holly tree and a shaft of light hits the patio,” Tim says. “It’s a great place to hang out in the afternoon.”

The garden has undergone near-constant revision: changing as the boys grow, as the house is renovated and, often, as Tim “borrows” plants because they would look perfect in a client’s garden.

“Being married to a professional gardener,” Lisa adds, “means that you wake up some mornings and part of your garden is gone.”

The garden also evolves as the boys’ needs change. The playhouse, for example, used to be closer to the house, but was recently tucked into a leafy corner of the yard because Matt and Alex no longer need to be watched so closely.

“They weren’t using it in the same way,” Tim says. “They used to just go crazy out there, and now they use it in a pseudo-adult way; they read their comic books out there and just chill.” The playhouse’s unpainted timbers and surrounding screen of shrubs and trees add to the sense of it being a children’s hideaway, while making the structure less visible from the house’s main deck.

To provide space for active play, Lisa redesigned the stairs off the back deck – repositioning them to provide a place for the basketball court. The sunken area under the deck also provides a hard surface for activities like skateboarding and hockey.

Key to the success of both these areas is that they meld seamlessly with the garden – whether bordered by plantings or stone, the transition is smooth. But this isn’t necessarily good for neighbouring plants.

“The fact is, kids and dogs are bad for gardens,” Tim shrugs. Although foot-high wrought-iron fencing protects plants nearest the basketball court and other high-traffic areas, Tim says flexibility is the best way to stay sane.

“You can’t be really attached to, say, the blooms on an iris. I have a gorgeous bearded iris next to the basketball court, and without fail, the blooms get knocked off every year. The basketball lands in the middle of the peonies – it happens.”

“All you can do is give the kids some places that are definitely theirs, and others where they’re welcome,” Tim adds. “There shouldn’t be any no-go areas.”

It’s a philosophy that’s certainly worked for this family – and this garden.

Gardening with kids?
Urban Landscape’s Tim Folliott offers a few tricks of the trade:

Play ball. Basketball or other sports courts can be attractive and multifunctional. A brick patio can do doubleduty as a basketball half-court: create the play/patio surface using brick and border the edge in a contrasting colour.

Think water. “If you can find a way to introduce water - even if it’s a small water feature,” Tim says, “the kids will love it.” Be sure to take safety into consideration if your children are very young.

Plant a climbing tree. If you plant a tree when your children are toddlers, it will be ready to climb by the time they’re nine or 10. When choosing a tree, pay attention to its stature. “Trees are great to plant as ‘teenagers’ – skinny and lanky and full of potential,” Tim advises. “If you plant something larger, it will often sulk for a long time.” Prunus serrulata (Japanese cherry)(zone 5) and Acer rubrum (red maple)(zone 3) are Tim’s picks for climbing trees.

Plant a “birth tree.” Matt and Alex both have trees that are special to them – planted when each was born. Matt’s is a Japanese maple, and Alex has an apple tree.

Choose gravel. Tim used gravel underneath the playhouse because cats won’t use it the way they use sand. “When the boys were little, they loved to take their Tonka trucks out there and move the gravel around,” Tim says.

Give them a veggie patch. This is a great way to get kids interested in gardening – and maybe even in eating the vegetables they grew!

Copyright Andrea Bellamy 2005. First published in GardenWise.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

To do: Coax Paperwhites

There's something untoward about the term, "forcing bulbs." I always feel for the poor mistreated bulb: was it bullied? Terrorized? Coerced? That's why I prefer coaxing.

Whatever you choose to call it, forcing bulbs refers to the act of creating conditions that mimic nature's springtime, confusing the bulb in winter. My favourite bulb to coax is the paperwhite, or, Narcissus tazetta ssp papyraceus.

Paperwhites are so easy to grow and require only four-six weeks to bloom. And that makes now the time to plant for beautiful blooms (and that fragrance!) just in time for Christmas and Hannukah. You can plant them almost anywhere: in potting soil in a container, or in rocks in the bottom of any vase, bowl or container. The important thing to keep in mind is that the top third of these bulbs always needs to be above the soil/growing medium. My experience has been that the stems eventually require some staking to keep from flopping over, so this year I am going to try growing them in a tall, clear hurricane vase in dark, coarse sand. My hope is that the vase will support the stems as they grow while still displaying the blooms to advantage. I'll let you know how it works out.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Preparing for winter

Today, a milestone. The first of many mornings with ice on the windshield. Joy.

In the garden, winter preparations are well underway. The bulbs are planted, the beds are tidied. It may be too late to plant a cover crop (also known as green manure) but according to Garden Organic, where you'll find a good month-by-month checklist, "whenever and wherever possible, you shouldn't leave soil bare overwinter as wind and rain will leach valuable nutrients from the soil, and weeds may thrive."

Hmm. I guess I should get on that mulching thing. Good thing I've got loads of gorgeous leafmold ready.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Galiano weekend

Please excuse my absence: I've been without a computer - gasp! - for two whole days. Ben and I spent the weekend on lovely Galiano Island.

Galiano is part of the Gulf Islands, which lie between Vancouver Island and the Mainland. Home to artists and artisans, farmers and small business people, they run on "island time," frustrating for those on a schedule, refreshingly laid-back for those who aren't.

Friends very generously lent us their cabin there - right on the waterfront! I could have watched the waves crash for hours on end. And while the weather wasn't great, I enjoyed the rain; it added to the sense of being hunkered down with nothing to do but read, knit, and eat great food. Tough life, eh?

I did manage to check out one garden while there, at a Bed and Breakfast called Serenity by the Sea. Being November, of course, the garden wasn't in top shape, but because a large part of its structure is defined by the stream that runs through the property, it was still lovely to look at. Check out the bathtub overlooking the ocean!

You can see more of my Galiano photos at my flickr account.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

A different approach to flowers on the grave

The Human Flower Project, a collaborative, international photo album and discussion of how people live through flowers, wrote yesterday about the Bolivian Fiesta de las Natitas, or, Day of the Skulls.

It's a modern ceremony with ancient roots. Think Mexico's Day of the Dead, but more, um, earthy. I found this just fascinating:
According to anthropologist Milton Eyzaguirre, the indigenous people of Bolivia’s Andes Mountains believe each person has seven souls, 'and one of them stays with the skull.' This particular soul can visit us in dreams and provide protection in waking life. On November 8th, the skulls are taken from home altars to a special mass for blessing...and are capped with crowns of fresh hydrangeas and roses, a spring rite long practiced in privacy and, more recently, a public observance of heritage and faith.

Though the Natitas (skulls) custom has been folded into Bolivia’s current day Catholicism, it possesses all the attributes of an older, more magical religion, one in which the dead and living maintain contact and ritual propriety reaps rewards of prosperity and health. In newer religions, the problem of fate is left up to a god, and typically flowers serve only decorative purposes. But there is an old and reasonable human inclination not to take chances; these more interventionist faiths use flowers to turn the wheel of fate favorably.

Via Pollenatrix.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Meet peat

Since the 1950s peat has been used by gardeners as one of the finest soil amendments for ericaceous plants (including heathers, azaleas and rhododendrons), as a mulch, and as a growing medium.

But peat is collected from wetlands, which harbour many rare and endangered species, and can take centuries to regenerate.

"In the past half century, 94 per cent of Britain's lowland peat bogs have been lost," says garden writer and BBC personality Monty Don. Which is what lead him to search out an alternative to peat.

He found it growing wild on his farm. Pteridium aquilinum, or, bracken fern, he says, is an excellent addition to compost for acid-loving plants. Trimming off the top of the plant for mulch and compost can also help bring the competitive weed under control without using chemical herbicides.

When I was a kid, I used to carefully "harvest" bracken, strip the leaves except for a frond or two at the end, and then use the poor fern as a "spear." Thankfully, I didn't completely decimate them, so my mom still has bracken growing everywhere. But what if you don't have access to endless bracken fern? Must you use peat?

In a word, no. Garden Organic has a good article on making your own peat-free potting composts. Peat alternatives, they suggest, can be made from the following:

Worm castings
Comfrey leafmould
Composted bark or fine-grade wood waste
Composted manure
Garden compost
Coir (a by-product of the coconut industry)
Brewery Grains

Chose your peat-alternative based on its planned use.

Next time you reach for peat, reach for bracken or coir instead; and save the peat bogs!

Via UBC Botanical Garden Weblog.

Guerilla Gardeners

I've always been intrigued by the idea of guerilla gardening. Of resisting the concrete sprawl and challenging the ownership of vacant lots. It's not a new idea; the movement started in New York's Bowery district in the 70s with a landscape painter named Liz Christy.

She spearheaded the reclaimation of the streets by turning vacant lots into guerilla community gardens. More than 800 gardens moved neighborhoods away from crime, toward community action, better diets and cleaner environments. The gardens trained a generation of activists and spawned other environmental projects, in New York and overseas (Environmental Tipping Points).

The group experimented with tossing seed grenades, into vacant lots: Christmas ornaments and water balloons packed with seeds, compost and water.

I've always wanted to throw a seed grenade. I image it would feel exhilirating and a bit naughty. Whee! So it is my mission now to test this theory. And I have a perfect lot that needs beautifying. Except it's winter, so I can't grow seeds. Maybe I should do some last-minute guerilla bulb planting...

Monday, November 07, 2005

Top 10 Herbs

Over at his Amateur Gardening blog, Stuart Robinson lists the ten must-have herbs from a chef's perspective. There's the usual basil, rosemary and oregano, but also lemongrass and even borage (I'll admit, I never knew what to do with borage. But that's why I'm not a chef).

Stuart, why no parsley? It's my standby. In fact, I think in all seriousness I could just plant parsley, basil, rosemary, thyme and chives and I'd be good to go. Of course, it's never limited to that. I always plant stuff that looks good at the nursery and then never have a use for it. I'd love to grow cilantro, and I do every year, but it always goes to seed faster than you can say Coriandrum sativum.

And I love to grow unusual edibles. I think, using the instructions here, I'll grow lemongrass next year.

New reason to justify a Prius

Toyota has developed a new shrub called Kirsch Pink. A derivative of the Cherry Sage shrub that is optimized for absorbing pollutants from the air, it is reportedly 1.3 times more effective at absorbing NOx, SO2 and other air pollutants than its parent stock.

The new plant, which flowers between May and November, also diminishes the urban heat-island effect 1.3 times more effectively than the Cherry Sage, according to the company. The shrub's main use is in green roofs.

Why, you ask, is a car company in the business of breeding?

Kirsch Pink is the work of Toyota Roof Garden, (one of the businesses in Toyota’s Biotechnology and Afforestation portfolio), originally launched as a way to mitigate the heat-island phenomenon that is worsening with time in Japanese cities.

Toyota sees a linkage between the automotive industry and the biotechnology industries in that both are aiming to achieve a sustainable society.

Via Treehugger.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Downtown Eastside residents find fulfilling work in gardening

Emerging Hope is a program that empowers residents of Vancouver's poverty-stricken downtown eastside by providing employment. Many are people who normally have difficulty finding suitable employment due to homelessness and addiction.

I spoke with a woman whose life had been changed by this program. She told me that, without Emerging Hope, she'd still be on the street. "It's hard to find a job when you're sleeping in alleys," she said. "No one wants you." Through this program, she's discovered a renewed sense of self-worth, and a love of gardening: "I love creating something beautiful."

Proceeds from sales of Emerging Hope services and products provide hours of paid employment. Programs include Wreaths of Hope, Baskets of Hope, and E-scape Landscaping Services. You can help by buying a wreath or basket, hiring E-Scape for yard work, or donating one or more of the items on their wishlist. See their website for details or call 604-873-9025.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Indoor composter

I'm pretty sure I need the new Nature Mill indoor composter. Here's the scoop. Ben and I are moving into our new home within the next three months. And while I'm happy because it's the first place we've owned together, it's gonna be tiny. And the garden is going to be even tinier.

I've been struggling with the compost question. Where we live now, I have FIVE - count'em - five compost bins. But when we move...well, let's just say there won't be room for even the smallest compost bin. I brought up the option of an indoor worm bin, but Ben wasn't having any of it. But this is another story. Apparently it will take up to 5lbs of waste daily. There's no odor. It's clean-looking. And it produces a practically-endless supply of compost! I think this is love...

Via Gizmodo.

Leggo my Eglu

I absolutely must have an eglu. Pleasepleaseplease, sweetie? I need it. And so will you, when you check it out. Here's what the omlet website has to say:
The eglu is a coop for the 21st century, featuring spacious open plan living for 2 - 4 medium size chickens or up to 5 bantams, it is a stylish and practical addition to any garden. Designed to be comfortable for the chickens and effortless for you, the eglu makes keeping chickens rewarding and fun.

The eglu offers a standard of living not seen before in chicken house design. It is fitted throughout with wooden roosting bars and an integrated nesting box with privacy screen to preserve your chickens modesty when laying an egg. The chickens are kept warm in the winter and cool in the summer, thanks to modern twin walled insulation. To make collecting your eggs easy, the eglu has an eggport which gives access to the nesting box

Available in five fantastic colours you can make a statement in red, be pretty in pink or keep it subtle with an eglu in green.

Upkeep of this fantastic chicken coop is made easy via the innovative slide out dropping tray and fully removable lid. Made from energy efficient polymers using modern construction techninques the eglu will last for years and at the end of its life can be 100% recycled.
Absolutely brilliant!

Via Horticultural.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Still blooming

Despite my complaints about the rain, ain't it grand to live in zone eight? I must remind myself, I could be digging out from a snowstorm, like the folks in Calgary. Instead, I wander around the garden and capture its last hurrahs.

Passiflora caerulea

Eupatorium rugosum 'Chocolate'

Rosa 'Bonica'

Pernettya mucronata

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Come again some other day

It's definitely autumn in Vancouver. I can tell because my biceps are becoming nicely toned from constantly carrying an umbrella, the bottom of my pant legs are always damp, and all I feel like doing is staying inside, curled up by the fire with a book.

We've entered monsoon season, and while I hate it sometimes, I know that next summer, we'll have another drought and I'll be praying for rain. Wouldn't it be nice to spread it out a little? I think I'll make a rain barrel, a lovely rainy-day project.

Or, I could buy one ready-made. The City of Vancouver has designed and manufactured their own rain barrels for use by residents for garden irrigation. Rain barrels are available to City of Vancouver residents only at a 50% subsidy (proof of residency is required) and the cost is $70.00. Accepted methods of payments are cash, cheque, debit or credit card.

The rain barrels can be purchased from:

Transfer Station
377 W. North Kent Ave.
Vancouver, BC
Phone: 604-873-7350