Monday, October 31, 2016

A Gardener's Horror Story!

Hanna hit the hilt of the shovel with her boot. Though the afternoon was drawing to a close, she was determined to get the last of her fall tulip bulbs planted. Two bags of deep burgundy 'Queen of the Night' tulips still rested in her basket. She was about to sink the shovel into the soil a second time when there was a flutter of wings and a loud screech.  Surprised by the commotion, Hanna looked up from her work. A blue jay screamed out a fresh call and hopped from one branch to another in a nearby crabapple tree. Hanna was about to resume her work when there was another flash of blue feathers and the first jay had company.

In summer she rarely saw these birds, but cool fall weather always seemed to bring their return to her feeder. She rewarded the jays' presence in the garden with a pile of peanuts each morning. She loved to sit and watched them make quick work of the nuts as she drank her morning coffee. The first jay always seemed to appear as if by magic. It was as if they smelled the fragrant peanuts on the wind. Sometimes as many as ten birds would fill the crabapple by the feeder. Occasionally a squirrel would try to muscle in on the action, but the large birds were thugs that even the squirrels seemed wary of. This morning she had been distracted and had forgotten to put out any peanuts. No doubt these two fellows were here to complain about her negligence.

Suddenly the two jays took flight. Hanna turned to see her neighbour Marilyn approaching on the other side of the chainlink fence. Quickly Hanna turned back to her bulbs hoping to avoid eye contact. She plunged the shovel deep into the earth and heard the blade clink as it came into contact with something hard. Damn! A rock or perhaps something worse- a chunk of concrete. Hanna knew well that there used to be an old shed on this part of the property. The shed had burned down in a fiery blaze not long before she had bought the house. In the blaze, a group of nearby trees had caught fire and volunteer firefighters from the neighbouring town had to be called in. When the flames were extinguished, nothing of the shed remained but the old foundation. All these years later, she was still unearthing bits of that stone and concrete.

There was a rustle of fall leaves underfoot and Hanna looked up to see her neighbour standing on the other side of the chainlink fence beside her. Marilyn nodded in the direction of Hana's basket filled with tulips."Planting bulbs so late in the season?" It was framed as a question, but it felt more like a reprimand. How Hanna disliked this woman! She was such a horrible busybody. There always some nasty bit of neighbourhood gossip Marilyn felt compelled to share.

"Yes. And I'm afraid I'm in a bit of a rush because, it is already getting rather dark," Hanna replied more curtly than was characteristic.

"Well then, I guess won't keep you... although I had an interesting story I was going to share," Marilyn replied sounding a little hurt. She turned on her heels and walked back in the direction of her house. Oh dear–Hanna was bound to pay for that little slight!

A chill wind whistled through the branches of the crabapple. Dusk was gathering rapidly and there wasn't a moment to waste on regrets if Hanna ever hoped to get that stone or chunk of concrete out and her tulips planted. She stabbed at the ground with the blade of her shovel feeling for the edge of the buried object. Oddly enough, the clank she kept hearing sounded more like metal. Finally, the blade located the outer edge of the object and Hanna pried down hard on the shaft of her shovel. It refused to budge. Several more failed attempts and Hanna began to sweat.

There was a flutter of wings and Hanna paused to see the jays had returned. They called out repeatedly, but Hanna had no patience for renewed distractions. She was bound and determined to get the darned impediment out. Once again she levered the shovel handle hard. The object suddenly gave way almost sending her stumbling backwards. At least now she could see the thing sitting at the bottom of the hole. To her surprise, it appeared to be a metal box wrapped inside some sort of plastic covering. She picked the object up and wiped the plastic clean with the palm of her hand. Inside the bag was a floral biscuit tin. How very odd! She shook the box and something rattled inside. How curious! A mysterious buried treasure!

In the nearby crabapple, the two jays began shrieking at one another. One of the birds seemed to have discovered a hidden nut inciting the wrath of the other. The jay with the peanut took flight and the second bird followed in hot pursuit.

Hanna was alone in the garden once more. All at once, she felt exhausted. It was really getting late. The cold and gloom of nightfall was beginning to invade the backyard. The bulbs would just have to wait until morning. Hanna thew the biscuit tin into the basket along with the unplanted tulips and headed back to the house.

In the kitchen, she placed the basket on the counter and turned to the fridge to find the leftovers she planned to warm up for her supper. No sooner has she opened the refrigerator door, when she heard a loud crash. Turning around, she saw that the biscuit tin had fallen to the floor. Funny! Hanna had been certain she had placed it deep in her basket.

Bending down, she picked up the rectangular tin. Hanna rattled the contents yet again and couldn't help but wonder what was inside. Overwhelmed with curiosity, she tore open the dirty plastic bag. The image on the cover of the floral tin was quite beautiful. Pictured against a dull olive backdrop was a vase perched on the edge of a dark green table. Spilling from inside the tan-coloured vase were roses, iris, tulips and other spring flowers. Hanna slipped her finger under the lip and popped the tin open. Inside was a note on a torn slip of paper. Picking it up, she read the erratic looking handwriting.

If you are unlucky enough to find this horrible thing, bury it again IMMEDIATELY or evil will follow you all of the days of your life.

Okay...that was a bit of an ominous warning! Hanna looked past the note into the tin. In one corner she saw what looked like a tiny claw. A bird of prey or perhaps the claw of a small mammal? She picked it up and touched the tip of the claw with her finger. Ouch! It was sharp. A tiny drop of blood appeared on Hanna's fingertip. 

Hmm...not exactly the buried treasure one would hope for! She read the note again, and such an overwhelming sense of dread filled her, she hurriedly placed the two things back in the box and closed the lid. Generally speaking, she wasn't slightest bit superstitious, but she had to admit that the whole thing was beginning to make her feel more than a little bit anxious.

When Hanna returned to the kitchen after supper an hour or so later, she was surprised to find the mysterious tin was again on the floor. It lay open, with the note and claw resting beside it. Now things were really getting strange! She placed the contents back in the tin. Going to the door, she opened it and threw the tin onto the back porch. It was going into the garbage first thing in the morning!

She washed up her dinner dishes, turned off the kitchen light, and went to watch tv in the living room. Craving some microwave popcorn she made her head back to the kitchen a few hours later. When she entered the hall, she was surprised to find the kitchen light was on. She would have sworn she'd shut that light off! Even more peculiar, the porch light was on!

Going to the back door, Hanna peaked out the window to see if the tin was still there. The lid sat open with the note right beside the tin. Flushing with frustration, she locked the back door and switched off the lights. Any interest in popcorn had vanished. It after well after ten anyway. Better to head to bed than to eat a snack. How weary she felt as she switched off the television and turned toward the staircase!

When she reentered the hallway, however, Hanna stopped dead in her tracks. The kitchen and the porch lights were on yet again and this time the back door was slightly ajar! The house was quickly filling with freezing night air.

Now things were getting just plain freaky! What had the silly note said? To bury the tin again immediately? Fine! Hanna angrily threw on her overcoat and reached up to the top shelf in the hall cupboard for a flashlight. If darn tin wanted burying, that's just what she'd do! Hurrying onto the back porch she grabbed the note, placed it in the tin and slammed the lid closed. In her haste, she forgot to check for the tiny claw. Little did she realize that it still lay in a dark corner.

Grabbing her shovel, Hanna marched out into the black and white world of nighttime. A strong wind whipped open Hanna's unbuttoned coat and she shivered in the cold. The backyard was dark, but the moonlight bouncing off a cloudy sky illuminated the lawn and outlined the craggy silhouette of the trees that towered above it. Too spooked to be without the comfort of a light, Hanna switched on her flashlight.

"Let's just get this over with," she muttered to herself. She flashed the beam of light across the yard to the flowerbed where she had unearthed the cursed thing. Halfway down the length of the backyard, a bird startled by the unexpected glow of the flashlight took flight. As it floundered in the darkness, there was a mad flutter of wings before the bird was able to find the safety of another branch.

When Hanna finally reached the hole she had dug earlier in the afternoon, she set the flashlight down on the ground. She reached under her arm for the box and threw it unceremoniously into the hole. She had almost buried it again when she heard the soft tread of approaching footsteps. This latest fright was too much to bear! To scared to move, Hanna stood hunched over her shovel. The beam of another flashlight flashed into her eyes and she raised one hand to block the glare.

"Rather late to be working out in the garden isn't it?" someone demanded to know. When her eyes finally adjusted to the light, Hanna saw it was Marilyn's husband Jack was standing on the other side of their communal fence. "We were heading off to bed when my wife saw a light in the backyard," Jack said angrily. "She was convinced we were about to be robbed or that some teenage pranksters were up to no good. What the hell are you doing out in the garden at this ungodly hour anyway?"

Hanna felt her temper rise in a way she had never experienced before. What annoying neighbours Marilyn and her idiot husband were! Always poking there nose in where it didn't belong!

"You've managed to frighten my wife so badly she refused to go to bed until I went out in the freezing cold to see what was going on," Jack continued in an angry voice, "Can't you do your gardening in the daytime like a normal person?"

This sent Hanna into a rage. How dare he! What business was it of theirs what she did in the privacy of her own backyard? Her hand tightened its grip on the handle of the shovel and she felt overcome with an uncontrollable impulse to do evil. At that exact moment, a cloud passed in front of the moon making the yard even darker. Madly Hanna sprung toward the fence, and with all her might, she swung the shovel at Jack's head. The surprised man didn't stand a chance.


The wail of sirens and the reflection of red lights on the bedroom walls awoke Hanna a few hours later. Dropping her feet to the floor, Hanna slid her toes into her fuzzy slippers. She strode across the bedroom carpet to the window, where she parted the curtains to look outside. Several police cruisers and an ambulance were sitting out front. A few minutes later, the crowd of police officers lining her neighbour's walkway parted to let two ambulance attendants pass with a draped figure on a gurney. An obviously hysterical Marilyn dressed in her robe and flippers suddenly appeared on the front stoop only to be lead back inside the house by one of the attending officers.

Letting go of the curtain panel, Hanna staggered backwards. Her head was spinning wildly. Was it all just a bad dream? No.... the evening's terrifying events all came flooding back to her. She walked unevenly down the hall to the tiny bathroom, where she grabbed a glass of cold water and two extra-strength Tylenol from the medicine cabinet.

She was about to crawl back into bed when she heard the repeated ring of the front doorbell. Opening the door, she found a handsome, but troubled-looking young police officer. "I'm sorry to disturb you ma' am, but there has been an incident next door."

 "Oh my goodness!," Hanna exclaimed, "What's happened?"

"I'm not at liberty to say, but a body has been found."

Hanna gasped as if shocked and leaned back against on the handle of her front door.

"We're hoping to have your permission to enter your backyard to look around further," the officer continued.

Hanna brought her hand up to her heart. "Why of course! Anything to help!"

The officer tipped his hat. "Thank you, ma'am. Hopefully, we won't have to disturb your evening any further."

"That's quite alright officer. I doubt I'll get a wink of sleep now!" Hanna smiled weakly and then shut the front door. Alone in the darkness of the front hall, Hanna sighed with relief. She may have lost her mind, but thank goodness she'd had the foresight to ditch the bloodied garden shovel where no one would ever find it.

In the spirit of Halloween, something a little different.
Back to normal gardening posts next, I promise!

Kisses to make it better!

Monday, October 24, 2016

Favourite Ornamental Grasses: Part 1

I am a sucker for a clearance sale. 

Back in early July, I worked my way into a throng of bargain hunters encircling a big cart of closeout plants at my local Loblaw garden centre. The big attraction? The $1.99 price tag!

The selection of perennials on the clearance cart was telling. Almost everything was an ornamental grass of some kind. Why had spring shoppers passed on these plants?

I think the answer is simple: an ornamental grass in a small nursery pot is profoundly unsexy. Shoppers are more attracted to plants with blooms (even I fall pray to this). There is just one problem with a purchase based on this criteria. If you buy only nursery plants in bloom, your garden will be full of June flowers with little to provide interest come late summer and fall. 

Choosing plants based on bloom overlooks the hidden potential that ornamental grasses have in spades! In the golden light of mid to late August, the magic begins and continues well into winter.

Annual Fountain Grass in a Brampton Civic park.

Annual Fountain Grass in a Brampton Civic park.

Switch Grass, Panicum virgatum

Korean Feather Reed Grass, Calamagrostis brachytricha at the TBG.

A mix of perennials and grasses at the Toronto Botanical Garden.

Marion Jarvie's garden in Thornhill, Ontario.

Switch Grass, Panicum virgatum at the TBG.

Even into winter ornamental grasses have a haunting beauty.

Korean Feather Reed Grass, Calamagrostis brachytricha

An ornamental grass makes a neutral backdrop for Rudbeckia 
seed heads at the TBG. 

The other reason I think that grasses get left behind at the nursery, is that gardeners still have difficulty knowing how to use them. Ornamental grasses have really surged in popularity in recent years, but some of us still struggle to incorporate them in with other perennials (myself included).

I was looking through my library of pictures for this post, when I happened upon this garden. Seeing it again with fresh eyes (originally photographed it in 2014) I was reminded how cleverly this gardener used ornamental grasses. They are dotted in amongst the flowers all through the garden. Short grasses are down front, while taller grasses work like small shrubs.

See more of this garden here.

In June, the clumps of ornamental grasses are somewhat understated, but by late summer I bet they steal the show!

Rideau Woodland Ramble Nursery Display Garden

Punctuating a mixed flowerbed with grasses is just one way to go. Massing grasses together is yet another approach.

Two different varieties of Miscanthus grass at the Rideau 
Woodland Ramble Nursery Display Garden.

Large clumps of Miscanthus at the Terra Nursery Display Garden

Terra Nursery Display Garden

One final set of inspirations as to uses of ornamental grasses. Think of them as shrubs and mix them in with perennials, other shrubs and conifers. The result is very textural.

A variegated Miscanthus at the Lost Horizons Nursery Display Garden

A Miscanthus works like a shrub in the this corner planting.

Marion Jarvie's garden in Thornhill, Ontario.

Marion Jarvie's garden in Thornhill, Ontario.

In part 2, we'll take a closer look at some of my favourite ornamental grasses.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Tiniest Flowers Blooming

Blooming in my garden is the most diminutive of flowers.

These petite purple fireworks are Japanese Ornamental Onions or Allium thunbergii. Native to Japan, Korea and Coastal China, Allium thunbergii can often be found growing at the edge of a woodland. The hollow, grass-like foliage has a mild oniony smell but does not have any culinary uses.

Allium thunbergii likes really well-drained soil and full sun. Bulbs may be planted in the spring or fall. (I was gifted a few bulbs from a friend. Thanks, Donna!) Seeds are best sown in the spring. 

The cultivar Allium thunbergii 'Ozawa' has mauve-purple flowers that are slightly larger than the species. Allium thunbergii 'Alba' has white flowers with yellow anthers and a green centre.

It's hard to get a sense of scale from these closeup shots, so I placed a red apple in front of the flowers. 

That's Piper reaching for what he figures is a ball. His long nose gives you a sense of how small these flowers really are. 

Allium thunbergii reach only 6-12 inches in height and form a clump of about the same size.

Allium thunbergii are prized for being the last of the ornamental onions to flower (anywhere from September to November depending on your garden zone. USDA hardiness zones 4-9). 

Even frost and snow are not a problem for these tiny flowers!

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Ten Ideas to Steal for your Garden Next Spring

Located on a quiet, tree-lined road near Campbellville, Ontario is a large country garden that has been twelve years in the making. The prospect of landscaping such a sizeable property might have intimidated many homeowners, but Mary-Anne Poole tackled the project bit by bit as time and money permitted. 

Under the tall evergreens at the front of the house, she planted shade-loving hostas in a series of island beds. Along the arc of the driveway, Mary-Anne created a part-shade garden using a mix of plants including Heuchera, Tiarella and Japanese Ferns.

In the sunny backyard, she designed a deep flowerbed that has grown in size over the years. It now runs the entire length of one side of the yard and across the back of the property. One of the nicest features of the wide, sunny border is a waterfall and pond framed by a rustic arbour.

Here are 10 great ideas from Mary-Anne's garden that can scaled-down to be suit any sized property:

1. Hint to a hidden destination. From mystery springs curiosity. When an outdoor space is revealed at a single glance, you remove the element of surprise and the delight at discovery that inevitably follows. A degree of mystery draws visitors to explore a garden with the hidden promise of what lies ahead.

In case you are wondering, the purple flowers seen in the previous picture are Lupins.

2. Create an interesting border to accentuate the pleasing curves of your flowerbeds. To edge her garden, Mary-Anne laid down a ribbon of landscape cloth and covered it with beach pebbles and a line of grey boulders.

The blue flowers in the previous image are Campanula.

Succulents and Cactus mingle together here. 
Good drainage is key to getting these plants to overwinter.

3. Plant a conversation piece! Capture the interest of garden visitors with an unexpected or unusual plant. Most people are curious about the cactus in Mary-Anne's garden but, surprisingly enough, some varieties of cactus can overwinter here in Southern Ontario. 

Mary-Anne's collection of succulents and cacti are quite exposed to the harshness 
of the elements in an island bed in the centre of the lawn.

Succulents & cactus mixed together.

Ostrich Ferns, Matteuccia struthiopteris

4. Go Native! When you choose a plant native to your area, you increase the chances it will be successful in your garden.

The Ostrich Ferns that are incorporated into the plantings around Mary-Anne's pond are native to Southern Ontario. Not only is this fern beautiful in dappled shade, but it is also well adapted to the growing conditions of her garden.

Ostrich Ferns, Matteuccia struthiopteris, by the pond.

5. Don't forget to consider the appeal of pleasant sounds. A great garden appeals to all the senses. One of the first things you notice about Mary-Anne's garden is the abundance of bird song. Birdhouses sit on top of tall posts, and feeders hang in almost every tree.

6. Don't leave visitors standing on the lawn admiring your garden from a polite distance. Invite them in to experience your garden more intimately by incorporating a pathway. If your yard isn't this large, use a short series of stepping stones tucked into one of the corners of the garden.

7. When it comes to adding color in shade or part-shade, think beyond flowers. If you have full shade, look for hostas that have interesting variegation or leaf color. In the partly shaded flowerbed along the driveway, Mary-Anne has incorporated a mix of Heuchera and Tiarella to make the garden colorful.

The plants with the dark burgundy foliage are Heuchera. The Foam Flowers or Tiarella have green leaves with dark veining. In spring, Tiarella have the bonus of lovely, soft white flowers.

8. Play up texture with contrast. Here the chartreuse flowers of Lady's Mantle, Alchemilla seems all the more delicate with a backdrop of small grey rocks and pebbles.

Wisteria vines provide the leafy canopy that covers the rustic structure.

9. Accentuate a focal point or key feature by framing it with an arbor. Here, rough timber and driftwood have been used to create the arbor that leads visitors to a pond in the centre of the backyard garden. 

10. Install a pond! A garden should be a place to reconnect with nature and nothing attracts birds, frogs and other creatures to your garden like a pond!

I hope you have found a few ideas that will inspire your plans for next spring!

More Information and Links:

I originally wrote about Mary-Anne Poole's garden for the Niagara Escarpment Views Magazine. You can read the full  2016 spring issue online. The article on Mary-Anne's garden, along with additional pictures, is also available in pdf form here.