Friday, December 9, 2016

Grapevine & Ivy Topiary

What does this gardener do when the weather turns cold and grey? She taps into her artistic side and gets crafty! One of my recent projects is a grapevine topiary.

Here is how I made it.

Materials & tools you need to make a grapevine topiary:

• A grapevine sphere (I found mine at Michaels) 
• Bundle of grapevine twigs (sold in a bundle also at Michaels)
• 24 gauge copper colored wire (look for colored wires in the jewelry section at the craft store)
• wire cutters
• Pruners or scissors to cut the grapevine (not shown)
• Wire coat hanger or wire of a similar gauge (not shown)
• A 6" pot of your choice (I found my pot at Walmart)
• A 4" pot or green or variegated ivy (if you can, choose an ivy that already has long tendrils)

Step 1: In step one, you are going to create the wire framework that will be hidden inside the trunk of your topiary. Take an old wire coat hanger, score it with your wire cutters, and then cut it. Straighten the wire and cut the full length in half.

Step 2: Wrap one end of the two pieces of coat hanger wire with the copper 24 gauge wire to hold them together.

Step 3: Select a number of straight pieces from the bundle of grapevine twigs.

Cut eight to ten grapevine twigs to be the desired length of your topiary's trunk. For the outdoor topiary I made, I cut 12" lengths (the outdoor version is shown at the end of the post). For the indoor topiary, I cut 6" lengths of grapevine.

Step 4: Place your coat hanger wire in the centre of the twigs you just cut. Try to hide it as much as possible with the twigs. Wrap the top of the bundle with some of the 24 gauge wire. (Note: we got a little carried away here with our wrapping. Circling the bunch 6-8 times will do!)

Next wrap the bottom of the twigs in exactly the same way. Here's what you end up with:

As well as adding strength to the trunk of your topiary, the wire supports the topiary structure underground. Twigs on their own would only rot in the damp soil of your plant pot. 

Now to attach the topiary's sphere!

Step 5: Locate the metal framework inside the grapevine sphere. Now look even closer until you find the join where the three parts of the metal frame meet.

Take a length of 24 gauge wire and insert it into the sphere, around that join in the framework, and then back out of the sphere.

Step 6: Feed one of the ends of the wire through the trunk and out the other side. Feed the other end of the wire through the trunk in the opposite direction and out the other side. Pull the ends of the wire tight until the ball is joined to the trunk. Alternating with one end of the wire and then the other, pass each of the ends of the wire back up through the sphere and then down and around the trunk. 

For one final bit of security, we ran one more loop of wire from the top of the sphere to the bottom of the sphere and then wrapped the loose ends around the trunk of the topiary (see red arrows above).

Step 7: Pot up your ivy and then insert the finished grapevine topiary. 

Take one of the long ivy tendrils, and moving upward, twist it around the trunk of the topiary. When you get up to the sphere, weave the end of the ivy in among the grapevines. Don't cut the ivy off when you get to the end! Leave the ivy tendril and allow it to grow further. As the new leaves appear along the length of the stem, continue weaving them into the sphere.

To make the shape of the topiary cleaner, go back and pinch off any ivy leaves that obscure the trunk.

Ongoing Care: I have had numerous ivy topiaries over the years, so I feel confident in predicting that it may take 4-6 months before a topiary will fill in and look as full as the one you see here. 

As far as ongoing care, keep working any new growth at the base of the topiary upward. Weaving the fresh foliage into your frame or trim any excess to maintain a neat, rounded shape. To keep my ivy healthy, I use a water soluble fertilizer every other watering.  

The only problem I have had with my topiaries is spider mites. Ivy seems particularly susceptible to spider mites. If you see faded leaves and fine webbing, treat the plant with repeated applications of insecticidal soap.

We are well into the holidays, so you may want to give your topiary a seasonal look. With the change of container, this grapevine topiary has a whole new look:

Love the idea of creating an ivy topiary, but don't want to have to craft your own frame? No problem!

You should be able to find ready-made topiary frames online.  By way of example, I found a few options at the Gardener's Supply Company. On the left are their Cone Topiary Frames and on the right are their Twist Topiary Frames.

One final twist on my grapevine sphere. This year there seems to be lots of terrific, inexpensive LED lighting options available. In the past, Christmas lights always meant ugly wires in the daytime and long extension cords. 

Now, with these new LED options, the lights are on a fine filament that virtually disappears into the greenery of an arrangement. With the battery packs, there are no long electric cords. 

I found this set of 60 lights at The Real Canadian Superstore. The copper-colored string of lights seemed like it would be perfect to wrap around one of my grapevine spheres. In the daytime, the copper filament all but disappears. At night, the tiny LED lights add a sparkle to my holiday urn.

Have a great weekend!

P.S. The announcement of the book draw winner is coming up next!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Amaryllis: A Flower Born of Heart's Blood

Certainly one of the most dramatic flowers you can grow indoors this winter is an Amaryllis. 

Last week three cherry-red trumpets opened on the Amaryllis in my kitchen. Each flower must be at least three or four inches across. Then, this morning, I was excited to see that there is going to be an encore performance with three more blooms on a second stem. Such a glorious display with so little effort on my part!

The name "Amaryllis" finds origins in a Greek tale of love and sacrifice. While walking on a mountainside, a young maiden named Amaryllis happens upon Alteo, a handsome shepherd. For Amaryllis, it was love at first sight, but in Alteo's heart, there was only a passion for flowers. For Alteo love needed to be truly magical, so he rebuffs Amaryllis, telling her he could only love a maiden who could bring him a flower that the world has never seen before.

Determined to win Alteo's love, Amaryllis travels to the Oracle of Delphi for guidance. The Oracle advises she must find a way to create the flower Alteo seeks from her heart's own blood. On this advice, Amaryllis appears at Alteo's door for twenty-nine nights, each time piercing her heart with a golden arrow. Finally on the thirtieth night, Alteo opens his door to find Amaryllis holding a crimson flower that has sprung up from the drops of blood spilling from her heart. He kisses her. At last the beautiful Amayllis has won Alteo's love!

Today no blood need be spilled to enjoy an Amaryllis. Growing this magnificent flower is easy. 

Planting an Amaryllis

Amaryllis are a bulbous plant that produce tall stems which bear clusters of two to as many as twelve flowers.

Amaryllis bulbs prefer to be somewhat snug and even a little pot-bound in a container, so choose your plant pot accordingly. Unlike bulbs like daffodils and tulips, you don't bury an Amaryllis bulb. Instead plant the bulb up to the base of its neck in good potting soil. You can expect an Amaryllis to flower about 6-8 weeks after its has been planted.

Heat is essential for the development of the flower stems, so place your freshly potted Amaryllis in a warm spot (68-70 degrees F) with direct light. Water it sparingly until the first flower stem appears. When the leaves and flower buds appear, water the pot regularly. The flower will open when the stem has reached its full height.

Once the first of the flowers has opened, you may find that the top heavy Amaryllis needs a bit of support. I used a simple bit of twine and a branch of dogwood as a support. A bamboo cane would work nicely too. Just remember to be careful when pushing your support into the soil. You don't want to damage the bulb.

A cool, shaded room will prolong the life of each bloom.

After it Blooms

An Amaryllis can be kept from year to year with a little bit of effort.

Once your amaryllis has faded, cut the flower's stem back to the top of the bulb. Think of your Amaryllis as another houseplant. Water it regularly and allow the leaves to develop normally.

Once all danger of frost has passed, you can move the potted bulb outdoors. Don't transplant it into the garden. Just leave it in its pot (you can partially bury the pot, if you choose).

Place the Amaryllis in a spot with light shade. Too much sun will do it no favours (I speak from experience here!). Continue to water and fertilize the bulb's leaves all summer. A good water soluble fertilizer should produce nice, healthy growth. Good strong foliage will help the bulb store the energy needed for re-blooming.

Getting an Amaryllis to Re-bloom

In early fall, the foliage on a Amaryllis will begin to yellow and that is a sign that it is time to bring the bulb indoors. Cut the leaves to a height of about 2" above the bulb and remove the bulb from the soil.

Clean away any remaining soil and place the bulb in a cool dark place (a refrigerator or anywhere else that the temperature remains around 40-50 degrees F will do). Leave the bulb to rest for the next six to eight weeks. After a minimum of six weeks, you can repot your Amaryllis and begin the whole cycle again.

Possible Problems with Re-blooming

If an Amaryllis fails to produce blooms, it is a sign that the leaves did not store enough energy to produce a flower.

A lack of both flowers and foliage may be a sign that the bulb has rotted. Squeeze the potted bulb just below the surface of the soil. If it's soft, the bulb has rotted and will need to be discarded.

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Thursday, November 24, 2016

How to make a Winter Hanging Basket

There was a time, when I took down the hanging baskets, that are filled with flowers in the summer, and stored them away for the winter months. Then it struck me that I was missing out on a huge opportunity. Winter is a long season here in Canada (or at least it feels that way). Why not use those same hanging baskets to put some color back into those drab, cold months?

So as well as the metal urns and window boxes, I started to fill my hanging baskets with greenery and berries. 

Altogether I have quite a few containers of one type or another to fill, so I try to forage as much as possible from the yard and the adjacent woodlot. I harvest responsibly, pruning branches carefully, so that I never damage the trees or shrubs I am cutting.

In the shady part of the garden, I am lucky to have quite a number of yews. Every fall they get a good haircut which leaves me with quite a bit of raw material for my winter arrangements. But even with the yew, I don't have quite enough evergreen bows to fill all my containers, so I also buy mixed bunches of pine, fur, boxwood, oregonia and cedar at the grocery store. 

Once upon a time Magnolia leaves were one of the pricy winter container options, but for the last few years Walmart has had them available for a very reasonable cost. So I buy a few magnolia branches as well. Magnolia leaves have those soft, suede-like undersides that warm up all the other greens.

Though it tempting at this time of year to add holiday bows and baubles, I resist the urge. The ground will be frozen in January, making it really hard to remove seasonal flourishes later on. Holiday decorations become cringe-worthy in February and March! 

Though I try to avoid a holiday look, I do add some fruit and berries to my baskets for a little color. In the garden I forage rose hips, crabapples and euonymus berries. From the store, I purchase western red cedar, with its little brown rosettes, blue juniper berries and incense cedar, with its golden buds.

Here's how I put my hanging baskets together:

Step 1: The baskets that hang on our front porch are actual brown twig baskets. If you don't have a woven basket like this, a traditional plastic hanging basket would work just as well. 

Fill your hanging basket with potting soil (if you don't have a hanging basket that is already filled with soil). The only purpose of the soil is to secure your evergreens in the pot.

White Pine (left) and Cedar (right)

Step 2: As with any good containers planting, use "spillers, fillers and thrillers" to create a nice arrangement of greenery and berries. 

Begin with the "spillers" that will drape down over the edges of your basket. For this I suggest long pieces of cedar and pine. Both evergreens have soft stems that allow them to hang down gracefully over the rim of the basket.

This is the basket after the white pine and cedar have been added.

Step 3: Next it's on to the "fillers" that will give the arrangement the fullness you want. 

For this, you can use almost any type of evergreen. I used pieces of boxwood, yew, spruce, noble fur, yew, oregonia (the variegated leaf you see above) and the magnolia leaves.

At the end of step 3, the basket has filled out nicely.

Step 4: The final step is to add some colorful accents with assorted fruit and berries.

If you don't have crabapples or rose hips, you can substitute with red winter berries, which are readily available at a variety of stores and nurseries. If you can't find winter berries or they're too expensive, faux-berries would work just as nicely.

As well as the two hanging baskets on the front porch, I also fill the wire baskets in the back garden.

It looks so much nicer than leaving them empty all winter! 

A hanging basket like this goes together pretty quickly. It takes just 15-20 minutes to make something that will look great throughout the long months of cold and snow! 

Friday, November 18, 2016

Nature Books for Gift Giving (Plus a Giveaway)

In this post, Jean Godawa has drawn up a great list of nature book recommendations 
for holiday gift giving.

As a student, I accumulated dozens of books about the natural world. Most have long outlived their usefulness and have been replaced by updated scientific discoveries and the collection of infinite knowledge available on the internet. There are, however, a few books with broken spines, muddy fingerprints and loose pages that are never far from reach at my desk. They continue to serve me twenty years later. Those are the books that I love. Those are the books that are worth the shelf space they occupy. I keep that in mind when looking for gifts for fellow nature lovers and try to select books that they too will find worthy of their own shelf space.

Wicked Plants, Wicked Bugs and The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart:
Did you know that cashews are from the same botanical family as poison ivy and poison oak? For people of any age who love macabre stories, bestselling author Amy Stewart has written some wonderful books on the intoxicating, destructive, dangerous or deadly properties of plants and insects. The books are well organized and easy to read, with plenty of useful information such as common names, habitats and origins. Her descriptions of historical encounters with some of nature's bizarre flora and fauna is both informative and entertaining. The author and illustrator recently released The Wicked Plants Coloring Book  with "40 botanical atrocities to color and keep"Any or all of these would make great gifts for nature lovers with just a hint of a dark side.

The Curious Nature Guide by Clare Walker Leslie:
We move throughout the day from one place to the next with little regard for the natural world we pass through. Clare Walker Leslie inspires us to follow that old adage of stopping to smell the roses but in a fresh way. This book encourages you to explore your neighbourhood or walk around outside and notice the various elements, from the clouds in the sky to the fungus on a tree trunk. Filled with information and simple activities such a making a spore print from mushroom caps or pressing autumn leaves, this guide would make an excellent gift for nature-loving families with curious children.

Gardening for Butterflies by the Xerces Society:
Stunning photography with detailed information on butterfly biology and behaviour is presented in this book in a very informative and easy to read manner. It suggests suitable plants for a variety of North American regions and provides an alphabetical listing of those plants along with wonderful reference pictures and ideal growing information. If you know someone who is planning or designing a new garden or is just looking for information about plants (including trees) that will attract butterflies to their garden, this book would be a welcome addition to their library.

Garden Flora by Noel Kingsbury:
Noel Kingsbury has written and excellent reference guide on the origins of garden plants. Laid out alphabetically, Garden Flora delves into the heritage of plants and describes, among many other things, how they were crossed with others to give us the plants we use in our gardens today. Visually, the book is gorgeous, with reproductions of historical illustrations, watercolours and paintings as well as contemporary photographs of plant species. This book is well suited to gardeners and botanists who wish to delve further into the history of their current garden flora.

Peterson First Guides by Roger Tory Peterson:
There are so many field guides to help identify the plants and animals around us that it is difficult to know which one to choose. My most well-used guides have always been by Peterson. Whether you want to identify the caterpillar you found on the sidewalk or the bird at your feeder, there is a Peterson guide to help you. The smaller First Guides are a great start for any age and there is one for birds, butterflies, caterpillars and insects.  Any of these field guides would make great stocking-stuffers for nature lovers. 

Bee Time by Mark L. Winston and H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald:
Both award winning books, Bee Time and H is for Hawk, are non-fiction accounts of the authors' personal relationships with nature. In Bee Time, Mark Winston describes his work in apiaries around the world and makes connections between his interactions with bees and with people. Helen Macdonald describes her immersion into the training of a goshawk while shutting out friends and family in order to deal with the death of her father. Both books are beautifully written. Upon finishing them, the reader is left not only with a great deal of knowledge about bees and hawks, but with a new understanding of human nature. If you know someone who is fascinated with nature and those that study it, both of these books would make excellent gifts.

A Child's Introduction to Natural History by Heather Alexander:
For readers aged 8 to 12, Heather Alexander provides a wealth of information about the natural world. The world's biomes are well described along with the living and non-living things contained within them. She introduces kids to the scientists and naturalists who have helped further our knowledge of the natural world. As an added bonus, the book includes patterns and paper for making origami animals.

A Wasp Builds a Nest by Kate Scarborough:
For younger readers, Kate Scarborough has written a book that can be read like a storybook but is full of accurate information on how wasps build their nest. Curious kids who wonder what it looks like inside a wasp nest will get a chance to see exactly what's happening in it at each stage of its development. The book is suitable for young nature lovers aged 5 to 8.

I could happily spend days in the library or bookstore leafing through books on plants or animals or the environment in general. The above are just a few suggestions that I think any nature lover would be pleased to receive. If you have read or used any of these books, I'd love to hear your feedback. Also, if you have any further recommendations for gift books, please do share them.

Blog post by Jean Godawa

About Jean GodawaJean is a science teacher and writer. She has been writing science-related articles for print and online publications for more than ten years. Jean holds a degree in biology and environmental science with a focus on entomology from the University of Toronto. She had conducted field research in the tropical rainforests of Asia and South America.

Thomas Allen & Sons has kindly given us a copy of the Garden Flora: The Natural and Cultural History of Plants in Your Garden to give away. Because we will have to send this book through the mail, we will have to limit entry in the draw to readers in Canada and the USA.

Please leave a comment below if you would like to be included in the book draw. The draw will remain open for the until December 1st

If you are not a blogger, you can enter to win by leaving a comment on the Three Dogs in a Garden Facebook page. You are also welcome to enter by sending Jennifer an email (

Please make sure there is a way for us to track down your email address should your name be drawn.