Saturday, October 31, 2015

Gardeners Beware! Poisonous Plants & Berries

"Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and caldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake"
                                              William Shakespeare from Macbeth

In the spirit of Halloween, I thought I would do a post on poisonous plants and berries. 

Foxgloves and Monkshood are very often singled out as poisonous garden plants. In fact, one of the first things you are likely to read about Monkshood, Aconitum is that it is poisonous. Certainly, Monkshood should be handled with caution, but it is also a really nice flower to grow in moist, part shade. 

Foxgloves, Digitalis contain cardia glycoside toxins which can affect the heart muscle in both humans and pets. It is also the source of a heart medication that has saved many lives. 

Foxglove, Digitalis (left) and Bi-color Monkshood, Aconitum (right)

Foxgloves and Monkshood may be among the best known poisonous plants, but there is actually a long list of plants that are poisonous to both humans and pets. 

When dealing with poisonous garden plants some good common sense goes a long way:

• Avoid eating, drinking or smoking when around plants that are known to be poisonous. 

• Dispose of toxic plant material carefully making sure they are out of reach of children and pets. 

• Wash your hands after handling poisonous plants, or even better, wear garden gloves. 

• Do not assume a plant is non-toxic because birds or wild animals eat them.

• If you think that a child has eaten a doubtful plant, seek medical advice immediately. Take a sample of the plant with you to the emergency department to aid the plant's identification.

• If you think your pet has ingested a poisonous plant, call your vet right away. Again, take a sample of the plant with you to the vet's office to aid with identification.

In the late summer and fall, the garden often is filled with shiny, ripe berries that might appear tempting to a young child. 

• You may want to consider avoiding plants with toxic berries until your toddler is old enough to understand they are not to be eaten.

• It's a good idea to teach young children never to put mushrooms, berries or any part of a plant in their mouth.

• It's always wise to supervise a young child in the garden.

Starting from the left: Yew berries, Pokeweed berries, Cotoneaster berries, Blue Colash berries

Here are just a few common berries that are poisonous:

Yew, Pokeweed, Bittersweet, Belladonna, Ivy, Mistletoe, Poison Ivy, Holly berries, Jerusalem Cherry, Doll's Eyes and Cotoneaster berries.

I consider myself lucky. My dogs don't like to dig and aren't interested in eating bulbs or plants. The only thing they have ever eaten is the odd cherry tomato. 

Here are some common plants poisonous to pets:

Autumn Crocus: Fall blooming crocus contain colchicine which is toxic to pets and may result in respiratory failure, liver and kidney damage, vomiting and gastrointestinal bleeding. (Spring crocus may cause vomiting and diarrhoea, but aren't as harmful).

Azalea: Ingestion of an azalea's leaves may cause vomiting, diarrhoea and drooling. Without quick veterinary attention, a pet may fall into a coma and possibly die.

Cyclamen: Ingestion of the roots of cyclamen may cause vomiting and even death.

Lilies: Tiger, Daylilies, Asiatic and Easter lilies are particularly toxic for cats. Even the ingestion of a few petals or leaves can cause kidney failure and death.

Daffodils: Ingestion of the bulb, plant or flower can cause vomiting, diarrhoea, slowed breathing and even cardiac arrhythmia.

Lily of the Valley: Like foxgloves, Lily of the Valley contains cardiac glycosides. When ingested Lily of the Valley can cause vomiting, a drop in heart rate or cardiac arrhythmia and seizures.

Tulips & Hyacinths: When any parts of these plants are ingested they can cause drooling, vomiting and diarrhoea.

This is a just a short list. If you have a pet that likes to snack in the garden, do your research before you bring a plant home for your garden. 

Sadly, there is quite a long list of plants you may have to avoid.

White Amaryllis

Houseplants can also be a concern for pets. Here is a list of just a few of the common houseplants that are poisonous for pets:

Amaryllis, Asparagus Fern, Azaleas, Chrysanthemum, Poinsettia, Pot Mum and Spider Mum

Bottom Line: If you think your pet has eaten something and is showing any signs of poisoning, consult a veterinary immediately.

Ways to deter pets from nibbling on houseplants:

• Put the houseplant up out of reach on a shelf or plant stand. You can also put houseplants in a hanger.

• Spray houseplants with diluted lemon juice (one part juice to two parts water) or bitter apple.

• Put plants in a glass terrarium.

• Offer an alternative. Buy kitty grass for your cat.

• Boredom is one of the major causes of bad behaviour. Offer some chew toys and other safe forms of entertainment.

A few ways to deter pets from eating garden plants:

• Build raised flower and vegetable beds.

• If you have a large yard, consider creating a fenced pet-friendly area and restrict them to it.

• Alternately, enclose your garden with a fence that will keep pets at a safe distance. A friend of mine has a lovely formal garden that is fenced and gated in her large open backyard.

• Consider netting or chicken wire to keep your pet away from problem plants.

• Train your dog. Praise him or her when he or she responds to firm correction.

Have a spooktacular Halloween!

More Information and Links:

Government of Canada List of Poisonous Plants
Canadian Child Care Federation list of toxic plants.

Article: "Will a Poisonous Plant Really kill your Pet" by Meredith Swinehart for Gardenista.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Margaret, David and a Handy Hollow Leg

Margaret and I kept crossing paths. 

By chance, I found a seat next to her at the Garden Writers Association luncheon at Canada Blooms last March. As we nibbled away at our plates of assorted sandwiches and cold salads, Margaret and I chatted. 

There was something so familiar and comfortable about this woman. I think it was because she reminded me of my mother. It wasn't that Margaret was a similar age. Nor was it the silver hair and light frame that both she and my mother had in common. There was something else, something much more subtle.

It wasn't until much later that I learned of the common bond that Margaret and my mother shared. Margaret has a son coping with mental illness, and in my mother's case, it was her youngest daughter.

The next time I ran into Margaret was on a Toronto garden tour. It was mid-June and the sweltering heat had begun to make the tour feel more like a marathon. Already I had seen one too many gardens where the swimming pool was the most impressive feature!

As I rounded a corner, who should I see but Margaret looking as fresh as a daisy! "She's 88 years old!", I grumbled to myself, "How is she managing to do all this walking?" 

A vivid blue Morning Glory growing on Margaret's garage.

The next time Margaret and I crossed paths was at the Garden Blogger's Fling closing dinner. I was standing in the midst of assembled bloggers enjoying posh, bite-sized hors d'oeuvres and glass of white wine when I saw Margaret motion to me from across the room.

"How is your health?", she asked when I took a seat beside her.

On the surface of things, I wasn't unwell, so I knew what she was politely asking about. She was questioning my weight. Maybe it was the party or perhaps it was the large glass of wine that made me feel open and generous.

"Well, I suppose I could be thinner", I said handing her the key to the door she wished to open.

This lead to a lengthy conversation on the subject of one of Margaret's great passions: food and good nutrition. Margaret's a Vegan (no meat and no animal products such as eggs and dairy).

"I hear from passersby what a pretty garden I have," says Margaret.

The following week I trekked into the heart of Toronto to see Margaret's garden. She lives off Avenue Rd., on a narrow tree-lined street that does not feel like it is anywhere near the epicentre of Canada's largest city. The houses were once modest family homes, but these days, they are prime Toronto real-estate.

The backyard is shady, but Margaret's front of the house is sunny, so this is where she planted this year's crop of tomatoes.

Also at the front are several Heuchera, Russian Sage and one of Margaret's favourite roses: the Fairy. 

"The Fairy roses at the front of my south-facing garden are my most successful plant. Japanese Beetles, which decimate many roses, do not touch these small pink blooms," she says.

Margaret's took this photo with her i-pad.

Taken from the vantage point of a second story window, this photograph shows the back garden in a nutshell. In the foreground is a small flagstone patio. Beyond it is an expanse of lawn with flowerbeds around the perimeter.

On the left is a garage designed by landscape architect Victoria Lister Carley. Just in front of the garage is the seating area shown in the next image.

While it does have a few splashes of color, the garden's palette is predominantly quiet.

"The garden at the back of my house is green and white, a color combination that is peaceful and calm. Reading about the white garden at Sissinghurst inspired me to use white flowers," she says.

"Chartreuse and purple have crept in as gifts, recommendation, or my choice."

" I like the gentle activity of gardening which takes me outside with nature."

Margaret says, "Hostas are my favourite plant with their never-ending variety. In a shady garden they work well, although I don't like the holes that the slugs make. As soon as the little hosta nubbins peek through the earth in spring I spray them with one part ammonia and nine parts water, a solution which stops those little critters dead in their trails. And if I see holes later on, I'll spray the whole plant with the solution."

"I bought this much-admired cement birdbath from a neighbour's garage sale for $3."

Leafy green shade plants like this Lady Fern, Athyrium (above) and the Japanese Forest Grass, Hakonechloa (below) fit in perfectly with Margaret's minimalist color scheme.

Once I had taken pictures for my blog, it was time to return the favour and take a few photographs for Margaret. She wanted a photo taken with all her favourite garden helpers that she could use on her own website.

Margaret disappeared into the garage and came out a few moments later sporting gloves, a sensible hat, apron, a bucket with handy pockets for tools, and a long bag strapped around her waist with an adjustable belt.

I started taking pictures, but began to think that people might wonder about the bag hanging off her hip. What makes sense in real life, can become mysterious shape in a photograph. What was that contraption anyway? I suggested she take off the bag for a few of the shots.

"But I wouldn't want to take it off," Margaret protested, "It's one of my best tools! It's my Hollow Leg!"

Then she proceeded to demonstrate.

Out came a beak-shaped set of pruners. Snip. Snip. Snip. Each pruning passed quickly from her hand to the Hollow Leg without any need to bend or move further. I could easily see how someone might find this to be a handy, back-saving device.

Over bowls of creamy squash soup, I finally had a quiet moment to ask Margaret about her son David's illness. At 22 years of age, while studying computer science at university, David was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

"I had a job, but I was so consumed with David's devastating illness that I couldn't focus on my work and so I resigned," Margaret recounts, " I spent the next five years trying to make sure he took his medication and kept his appointments with his psychiatrist. And, at times, trying to dodge the orange juice which he more than once threw at me in our dining room."

Before I sat down to write this post, I read through some of Margaret's own blog posts. I was struck by this passage which spoke to her garden as a place of refuge:

" My favourite spot to get away from the world is behind our garage. Here, hidden from neighbours and family, I can listen to the fountain reminding me of the sound of the water rushing over the stones  in the creek behind the house of my childhood. I can look up through the pine needles to the blue sky. When David was first diagnosed with schizophrenia, this is where I mourned."

That last word really hit me. Mourned. It represents a pretty powerful emotion. I thought of my own mother's reaction when it became apparent that her youngest daughter was seriously ill. Mom was devastated, that I do remember.

Mental illness is a tough diagnosis for any mother to face. Seemingly overnight my sister reverted from a young woman, about to gain her independence, back to a dependent child who would need some form of care all of the days of her life.

The good news is that my youngest sister is doing great. I am so proud of her! She has her own apartment and even manages to hold down a job. Still, my 91 year old Mom worries endlessly about her future. Sometimes I think it's her concern for my sister that keeps my mother's heart beating. Mom can't face leaving my sister behind.

In Margaret's case, I think it's probably the same worries for David that keeps her going. Knowing you're needed has a way of keeping you young.

More information and Links:

The Gardener's Journal began as a calendar that David used to keep track of his medications and doctor's appointments. Looking for a project on which they could work together, Margaret and David transformed it into a journal and resource guide for all things gardening. The newly released 2016 edition marks the Journal's 24th year. The book has five sections: Journal, Garden Plan and Records, Photos, Delights and Disappointments, and Local Source Book. You can order a copy by clicking the link above.

        You too can own your own Hollow Leg. Here's a link.

Here's a book Margaret recommends, "I like the What Plant Where Encyclopedia published this year and edited by Lorraine Johnson who is beyond knowledgeable and smart. As the back cover states, "Planning your garden has never been easier."

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Simple Projects with Dried Hydrangeas

Now is the perfect time to bring some of those glorious fall colors indoors! I have some simple arrangements, using dried hydrangeas, that I think you are going to love to try.

You can dry hydrangeas a number of ways. The best and most popular method is to put them in a jar or vase with about an inch of water. By the time the water disappears, the flowers are dry.

Another easy way is to hang bunches to dry. Simply secure your flowers with an elastic band and hang them in a cool, dry place that out of direct sunlight.

This certainly works, but based on my experiments, I am not sure it is always necessary to dry the flowers first before you use them. Dried hydrangeas are brittle and fall to pieces easily. 

Fresh flowers harvested at this time of year are often much easier to work with. With the cool fall temperatures, hydrangeas are already somewhat dry and papery. Fresh stems are strong and woody making them easier to use.

My first project was to fill a basket with hydrangeas and dried roses.

It's standard practice for dried arrangements of this type to use a piece of florist's foam to hold the flowers in place. 

Florist's foam is full of chemicals and isn't biodegradable, so I opted instead to use an old fashioned flower frog. (Note: If you are doing a basket up as a gift, you may want to resort to using the florist's foam. It will make the arrangement more transportable.)

The mix of flowers I used include:

Hydrangea 'Invincibelle Spirit' (seen above on the left as they looked earlier in the summer. This Proven Winner's cultivar has flowers that are smaller and finer than many other varieties of hydrangea. Unfortunately, the stems aren't super sturdy)

 Hydrangea paniculata 'Little Lime' (seen above on the right).

Here's how to make your own basket arrangement:

Go out to your yard and pick a generous armful of hydrangea flowers. 

Remove all the leaves and trim the hydrangea flowers to a length appropriate to your basket (as shown above)

Place the metal frog in the bottom of your basket.  Insert the woody stems into the metal frog. 

Put the basket aside while the hydrangea flowers dry enough for you to move on to the next step, which is adding the dried roses. 

Roses must be hung to dry. Fasten bunches of roses together with an elastic band and then hang them, upside down, in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight. It will take a little over a week to dry roses. When the rose stems are stiff, they are usually ready to use.

Trim the dried roses to a length appropriate to your basket (mine were about 8 inches). 

Gently poke the roses in amongst the hydrangeas and allow them to catch in the maze of flower stems. (If you opt to use foam, secure the roses into the florist's foam inside the basket.)

This is my finished basket filled with dried hydrangeas and roses.

This hydrangea wreath was another project where I used fresh flowers. Once assembled the wreath dried perfectly.

To keep this post a reasonable length, I have posted instructions separately here.

How to make a dried hydrangea arrangement for a vase or urn:

Cut your hydrangea flowers to a length appropriate to your container. Remove all the green foliage.

Gather the flowers into a pleasing bouquet and fasten the flower stems together with an elastic band. 

To double-check your arrangement is pleasing, place the tied flowers into the urn or vase. Remove the elastic, if necessary, and make any minor adjustments. Gather the flowers back up and refasten the elastic band when you are happy with the arrangement. 

Hang the flowers in a cool, dry place out of the direct sun. 

Before you know it the flowers will be dry enough to place right side up in your vase or urn. 

I left the elastic in place to hold the flowers in position. Another arrangement done!

Even individual hydrangea flowers have a decorative potential. 

I used a few of the dried flowers along with some dried purple Gomphrena to pretty up this bird's nest.

Purple Gomphrena (see my post on Simple Techniques for Drying Flowers)

Often I collect things I like with no intended purpose in mind and group objects together later. 

This is a perfect example. The silver pedestal dish came from a charity shop ($5). The bell-shaped glass cloche was purchased from a home decor store a few years back ($8-10). The straw nest is from the craft store ($8). The speckled eggs and ceramic bird are tiny treasures I picked up somewhere or other in my travels. 

I like to think that, grouped together, my random collection of things becomes rather charming. 

In behind is another bunch of dried hydrangeas in a white pitcher. (Yes, I do have loads of hydrangeas in my garden!)

If you have hydrangeas in your garden, it's not too late to think about drying some of them!