Thursday, January 26, 2017

Our Odd Couple: Piper & Honey the Rabbit

It seems that the smaller the creature, the more we are inclined to be dismissive. If our pet rabbit, named Honey, has taught me anything at all, he's shown me that small creatures have emotions and plenty of personality to spare.

Though there is always a degree of curiosity, Honey and our two older dogs seem to have settled on a pact of mutual indifference. Honey seems to view the dogs as animals with which he has no particular affiliation. The dogs, on the other hand, think of the rabbit as potential sport they know they'll never be permitted to pursue (Shelties are herding dogs who love nothing more than to chase and corral). So Buddy and Scrap simply return the rabbit's disinterest.

Piper is the exception. He takes great interest in everything to do with the rabbit. First thing in the morning, he loves to watch as I clean the rabbit's cage and top up the feeder. Piper's learned that, if he climbs halfway up the stairs to the third floor attic, he has a perfect view of all the proceedings. 

In contrast to Piper's excitement, the rabbit always sits glumly hunched with his ears flat against his back as my hand intrudes into the cage to mop and sweep up any mess he's made overnight. It's not until the rabbit hears the scoop of dried food pellets spilling into the feeder that his lethargy evaporates. In a hop, he's next to the feeder giving it a sniff, sniff sniff. 

The dried food never seems to make him completely satisfied. Usually he sit back on his haunches as if to say, "Hurumph! I'm holding out for the treats." The plastic rustles as I open the bag of "Hearty Hay" and the rabbit gives a little hop of excitement. Piper hears it too and presses his nose in close to the side of the cage– much to the consternation of his territorial friend. The rabbit bobs his head as if to say,"Go ahead little dog! Try to steal my treats, I dare you!"

Some mornings the squares of "Hearty Hay", the fruity "Timothy Bits" and the yellow "Yogurt Yummers" are all dismissed. It's Honey's favourite– the orange drops, that look like chocolate kisses, he's holding out for. 

Piper, on the other hand, isn't too proud to eat anything that might accidentally drop to the floor!

In case I have inadvertently created the impression that Honey is the sweetest of creatures–let me set the record straight. He is a very good little bunny, but he has a hot temper. If I dare to pick him up when it does not suit him, he'll paw at my shoulder to express his displeasure. If I fail to heed that initial message, he'll nip my clothing repeatedly. I have to point out that he'll bite my clothes, but he's never ever bitten my skin. It's a perfect example of the rabbit's sophistication that he's capable of making this subtle distinction. 

Piper's fascination with the rabbit extends to bath time. A rabbit in a smallish cage can get dirty in a way that one in the wild never would. So every once in a while, Honey needs his paws and/or his lower body cleaned. 

How does a rabbit, who has no inclination to water, take to being bathed? Like a trooper! As long as I hold him, he's pretty good about it. Somehow the rabbit seems to know that he's being cleaned and groomed. 

Piper likes to peak into the bathtub as I soap and wash the rabbit's paws.  Piper hates having a bath himself, but if it's the rabbit that's being washed, a bath is an entirely different matter! 

When Honey's clean he gets wrapped in a towel like a new born baby. That's when Piper likes to move in to check on the tiny face protruding from the towel. If I don't push his nosey-nose away, he'll lick the rabbit's ears and face.

Cynics among you might imagine that Piper is simply taste testing the rabbit. I wouldn't blame you– he is a dog after all. 

I'd think the same thing myself were it not for the fact that Piper gives Scrap the same love and attention. Every morning poor Scrap has to submit to Piper cleaning his face and licking his gums. It's funny to see Piper with his head down Scarp's wide open mouth cleaning those back molars. Buddy, who turned eighteen this November, is also the recipient, although a less co-operative one, of the Piper treatment.

Drying a rabbit after a bath is no simple matter. That soft, velvety fur refuses to let go of water. 

I pat and rub Honey dry as best I can with the towel. Then it's onto a combination of the blow dryer and brush. I put down the toilet lid and cover it with a towel. The rabbit hops onto the covered seat like a star taking to the stage. While I direct the stream of hot air, he hops around in a circle. Sometimes he'll pause and lick his feet or wash his face with his front paws. Occassionally he will get impatient with the process, but he never tries to escape. 

Star that he is, I think he likes being well-groomed.

Piper dotes on the rabbit, but how does Honey feel about the dog? 

The love is not in any way mutual! Honey thinks Piper is an annoying buttinsky. Honey will put up with nose pokes and doggy kisses only so much. When the rabbit's had enough, he'll hop, box at Piper with his tiny paws and threaten to nip. I always try to separate the pair long before it reaches that point.

It was my son and his then girlfriend that brought a rabbit into our lives–against my express wishes I might add. I hated the idea of restricting a running, jumping creature to the confined space of a small cage.

When my son brought the baby bunny home, he constructed a three-story cage to elevate some of my objections. The rabbit moved into his bedroom, but that didn't last long. Rabbits are nocturnal creatures who are often most active at night. Before you knew it, the poor rabbit was evicted from my son's room and banished to live in an adjacent hallway. As is so often the case with kids and pets, my husband and I soon found we were Honey's principal caretakers.

Even though the cage is a large one, I hate seeing Honey looking bored and dejected. So he comes out of the cage as often as I can manage it. It's not always under ideal circumstances (he sometimes has to be on a harness and extending leash), but I do what I can. 

Many days Honey comes along when I take the boys out to play ball. Like all critters, who are a popular item on the food chain, the rabbit likes to seek cover. His favourite spot is under a bush by the back fence or hiding under the skirt of one of the pine trees. 

In the spring, he's sometimes given free-range of the backyard (the yard is fully fenced). You might imagine that, let loose, the rabbit would be hellbent on finally making good his escape into the wild. Surprisingly enough, he usually finds some cover, settles in and gets comfortable. Sometimes he'll nibble different plants, but mostly he seems to like to watch me work. Catching Honey again at the end of the day is the only challenge. Like any kid, he never wants the outdoor fun to end!

Weather permitting, Honey also comes along when my husband and I give the dogs their evening walk. Most nights he sits in the black chair (the one you see in the pictures) while I put on his harness and lead. 

Once I am dressed for the weather and standing on the front walk way, I bend down and Honey hops onto the flagstones. Then he's usually down the walk, through the gate, and pulling me down the driveway before the others are even out the door. The dogs and my husband have to scramble to catch up with us.

So if you ever are driving down Embleton Rd. around nine-thirty at night and see an older couple, three dogs and a...wait a minute...what the heck? 

Yes, believe it or not, it is a rabbit out for an evening stroll.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Small Garden with the Blue Twig Sculpture

When it comes to design, this is a garden that gets it right in so many ways. 

It's all the little touches that make this front entrance so welcoming. There is even a pretty wreath on the door.

The yews and most of objects on either side of the front door are balanced symmetrical (the two black sconces, the two rectangular planter boxes filled with annuals), but there is just enough asymmetry to keep things interesting (the concrete fruit basket on a stand and large final on the porch).  

It's natural to want to dispense with the bother of mowing a lawn when your front yard is as small as this one. The challenge in replacing the grass is to make the plantings looks just as tidy and presentable as a lawn. 

Over the years I have seen as many unfortunate attempts at replacing a front lawn with a garden as I have seen success stories. It's hard to get it right. (I must see if I can do a post on the subject!) 

In this instance, the plantings have been keep somewhat formal. In the foreground, a box hedge frames a low expanse of pachysandra. Shading the pachysandra are a row (only one is visible in this photograph) of Ivory Silk Tree Lilac, Syringa reticulata 'Ivory Silk'. This is a fairly compact tree that has fragrant, creamy-white flowers in late spring or early summer. (Height: 20 ft, Spread: 14 ft. USDA zones:3-7).

To the right of the door is a novel sculpture that was created with can of blue spray paint.

Before we head into the backyard, let's stop to admire these pretty container plantings.

1. Pink Begonias 2. Impatiens 3. Purple Heart, Setcrsea purpurea (tender perennial or houseplant) 4. Coleus 5. Lobelia

The shady area at the side of the house has been kept low maintenance with a simple concrete walkway and a neat row of shade lovers that include hosta, Bleeding Heart (Dicentra), Solomon Seal (Polygonatum), Japanese Ferns (Anthyrium) and Ostrich Ferns (Matteuccia).

As you move down the walkway and get closer to the backyard, growing conditions get a bit sunnier allowing for plants like the clematis that you see in the next images.

If you have a small garden, be on the lookout this spring for some of these newer varieties of clematis that reach a height of just four to six feet.

At the back of the house, a pergola shades the stone patio from the hot afternoon sun.

The homeowner has a gift for composing perfect little vignettes.

In the backyard, the fence has been stained charcoal, which sets off the fresh 
green of the plantings very nicely. 

1. Boxwood frames the flowerbed 2. Two fragrant lavender plants 3. A round boxwood 4. Making its way up the fence is a Climbing Hydrangea 5. Columnar Copper Beech

Hosta are planted right behind the birdbath.

Columnar Copper Beech

In a small garden, a columnar tree is a great way to add privacy over and above the separation that a simple fence provides. The growth of a columnar tree is narrow and upright, so you have privacy without the shade that a tree with a wider canopy would generate. 

Container plantings throughout the space add nice hits of color.

Plants here include: Japanese Maple, Hosta, a Hydrangea, Alliums, Solomon Seal 
Columnar Copper Beech and Climbing Hydrangea

In my humble opinion, there is no such thing as a low maintenance garden– just to water the containers in this garden each day would take a couple of hours, but with proper attention in the spring, I think most people would find the workload here very manageable. 

Spring Chores: Certainly you'd want to add a top dressing of leaf mold or compost each spring to keep the plants happy and healthy. The planting is fairly dense, so any weeds would have lots of competition. A generous covering of mulch would reduce the need to do any weeding even further. Other chores might include regular pruning, a bit of deadheading and of course you'd have to water when the garden gets really dry. All and all, the upkeep on a garden like this could be easily managed.

A pebble courtyard gives the garden a European feel. Blue fabric cushions and large blue pots make the garden feel fresh even on a hot day.

 Wouldn't this be the perfect place to spend a summer's afternoon?

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Two Members of the Large & Extended Family Campanulaceae

Campanula persicifolia in a private garden in Campbellville, Ontario

"A man travels the world over in search of what he needs, and returns home to find it." 
–George Moore

Every family has its share of colorful characters. The family Campanulaceae is a large, extended family of plants that includes annuals, biennials and perennials. Two outstanding members of this clan that, as a gardener, you may want to get to know better are Bellflowers (Campanula persicifolia) and Balloon flowers (Platycodon grandiflorus). 

Together these two perennials can give you an extended period of bloom that will see you through most of the gardening season. Campanula persicifolia begins to flower quite early in the summer. Then, just as these Bellflowers finish their first flush of blooms, many varieties of Platycodon grandiflorus will begin to flower and will continue to do so well into the late summer or early fall.

Campanula persicifolia

In my garden, Campanula persicifolia begins to flower in the early to middle part of June. It's a time when many other summer perennials are still in a growth phase and have yet to bloom. It's nice to have the delicate white and mauve bells as a companion to the first of my roses, peonies and early flowering clematis.

To flower well, Campanula persicifolia requires full sun, good drainage and moderate soil moisture

Campanula persicifolia are an easy-to-grow plant that forms a low mound of green leaves. This perennial has bell-shaped flowers that are carried on tall stems.  Normal, sandy or clay soil and average to moist conditions are fine for this plant. Full sun or light shade. Height: 60-90 cm, Spread: 30-50 cm. Zones: USDA 2-9.

Campanula persicifolia grouped in a private garden in Campbellville, Ontario

Campanula persiifolia are a bit of a tricky plant to place in a flower border. When they're not in flower, they're just a low mound of evergreen leaves. They don't become tall until the stems that carry the flowers appear. After the spent flowers are deadheaded, the plant is back to being a low rosette of green leaves. As it's short for a much longer time than it is tall, I've always placed Campanula persiifolia near the front of my flowerbeds.

One thing I haven't done, which would be nice to do if you have a larger garden, is to group Campanula persiifolia in a mass planting like the one you see above. Large groupings are always more impressive than just one or two isolated plants.

Just a quick mention– As well as tall Campanula persicifolia, you can also find more dwarf varieties with very similar flowers (like the one you see here on the upper left)

Campanula carpatica 'Blue Chips' has large, mauve-blue flowers. This perennial forms a low mound which makes it a perfect choice for edging or rock gardens. When deadheaded regularly, it will bloom repeatedly from early summer into fall. Campanula carpatica likes good drainage, but is adaptable to a variety of soils and moisture conditions. Divide every few years in spring or fall. Full sun or part shade. Height: 15-30 cm (6-12 inches), Spread: 20-30 cm (8-12 inches). Zones: USDA 2-9.

Campanula carpatica 'White Chips' has cup-shaped, white flowers on a low, mounded cushion of green leaves. Full sun or part shade. Height: 15-30 cm (6-12 inches), Spread: 20-30 cm (8-12 inches). Zones: USDA 2-9.

Balloon flower, Platycodon grandiflorus is a nice addition to any mid-summer garden. This is a tall, upright perennial has a carrot-like root and is very long-lived.  Colors range from blue to pale-pink and white. Depending on the cultivar you choose, Balloon flowers will grow as tall as 60-75 cm (23-29 inches) and spread as much as 30-40 cm (12-16 inches). Not deer-resistant. USDA Zones: 3-9.

Platycodon grandiflorus

I love the opening to this excellent article by Barbara Pleasant for the National Gardening Association (in the USA):

"If plants were like movies, Balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus) would be one of those critical successes that nobody goes to see until word of mouth gives it a boost. Balloon flower, also known as Chinese Bellflower, has been racking up great reviews for more than 50 years, yet it's still not found in many gardens."

So true! Platycodon grandiflorus is a terrific, easy-to-grow perennial that should be planted in gardens more often.

The flower buds that look a bit like hot air balloons give Platycodon grandiflorus its common name: Balloon Flower. One of the reasons I really like this plant is its late bloom time. In my garden, it starts blooming at the end of July, and with a little deadheading, continues to flower into the fall. The two bluish-purple cultivars I grow provide a welcome infusion of cool color when most of the plants flowering in my garden seem to be hot colors. 

In spring, it's one of the last perennials to emerge from the ground– in fact I find you really have to be careful not to forget it's there and over plant it with something else (Tip: leaving the old plant stems through the winter is a good reminder of the plant's location)

The growth habit of this perennial is more upright than that of Campanula persicifolia. This narrow profile makes Platycodon grandiflorus a good choice for a small garden. To grow well, Balloon flowers like full sun or light shade. They're a perennial that's slow to establish, but Balloon flowers are long-lived and don't require regular division like so many perennials.

This is not a plant without its fair share of problems. The large blooms tend to make the plant top-heavy giving Balloon flowers a tendency to flop. I've always staked my plants, but recently I read somewhere that pinching the plant back in June will make it shorter and more sturdy. I think I may try this next summer and see how it goes.

Varieties of Balloon flower vary in flower size and color and overall plant size. The very popular 'Fuji' series are among the tallest cultivars and produce blue, pink and white flowers.

A few of the single blue cultivars have been rated in a study conducted by the Chicago Botanic Garden (Judged for their growth habits, upright stems, floral displays and hardiness):

'Sentimental Blue' has bluish-purple flowers from early July through to early Sept. Short at just 12" in height. Overall rating: Good

'Baby Blue' has 3 inch, lavender-blue flowers on a shortish plant (20 inches in height). It blooms from early July through to late August. Overall rating: Good

'Astra Blue' has large (3.5 inch), lavender-blue flowers from early July through to early Sept. It typically grows 22 inches in height. Overall rating: Good

'Fuji Blue' has bluish-purple flowers from early July through to early Sept. It's a tall cultivar at 40 inches in height. Overall rating: Good

As well as blue, you can find cultivars with white or pink flowers. A few of the whites available as rated in a the same study are:

'Fairy Snow' aren't pure-white. The flowers are veined with blueish-lavender. It's shortest at 22 inches in height. It flowers from late June into September. Overall rating: Fair

'Fuji White' blooms mid-July to early Sept. 40 inches in height. Overall rating: Good

'Hakone White' has blue veins that fade away as the flowers open. It tends to have more open flowers during its bloom time than 'Fairy Snow'. It's tallest at 43 inches in height. Blooms mid-July to early Sept. Overall rating: Good

A couple of the Pinks:

'Fuji Pink' has 3 inch, pale-pink flowers from early July through to Sept. It reaches 38 inches in height. Overall rating: Good

'Shell Pink' has pale-pink flowers that are half an inch larger than 'Fuji Pink' on a shorter plant (25 inches in height). Overall rating: Fair

A few years back I added the double form of Balloon flower to my garden: 

Balloon flower, Platycodon grandiflorus 'Hakone Blue' has single or clusters of double, cup-shaped blue-purple flowers that are two or three inches across. This is a tall, upright perennial that likes full sun or light shade. Height: 45-60 cm (18-24 inches), Spread: 45-50 cm (18-20 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

The rock garden at Dalhousie University's Agricultural Campus in Truro, Nova Scotia. 

I first admired this dwarf form of Platycodon grandiflorus in the rock garden at the Dalhousie University's Agricultural Campus in Truro, Nova Scotia (see more of this amazing rock garden here, here and here). Last summer, I finally tracked a plant down and added it to my own garden.

Platycodon grandiflorus 'Sentimental Blue' is a dwarf selection with purple flowers. Height: 15-20 cm (6-8 inches), Spread: 20-30 cm (8-12 inches). USDA zones: 3-9.

Other than their tendency to flop, there is one other minor downside to Platycodon grandiflorus that I can think of– the spent flowers are a bit unsightly unless you deadhead the plant religiously. 

Still I think the plant's benefits far outweigh its faults. In late summer, I always appreciate those starry blooms.

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Just two of the terrific perennials from a large and complex family of plants!


The weedy look-alike– Creeping Bellflower, Campanula rapunculoides
As I said in my introduction– Every family has its share of colorful characters and not all of them are good characters. Creeping Bellflower, Campanula rapunculoides, which is native to south-east Europe and Asia Minor, has become a problem weed here in North America. It has purple flowers that are all on one side of the stem and open from the bottom of the stem upward. This is an invasive plant that can produce up to 15,000 seeds. It also has tuberous roots that spread underground. If you find it in your garden, remove it immediately or it will become a huge problem! Don't use a trowel to do the digging, use a shovel. You need to get right down and get all the carrot-like roots. If you miss even a small part of the root, the problem will be back before you know it!