August in the Garden: Weeds and Visions

In one of my favourite garden books — My Weeds : a gardener’s botany — Sara B. Stein reveals that by the end of July she has “had it with weeds and gardens.” She no longer bothers to pull up weeds and spends the month of August in a place without a garden, and therefore without weeds. Whatever plants happen to grow there are fine; there is no need to identify any as weeds and struggle to remove them from the scene. Gardening makes some plants into weeds. Without the gardener, the garden is taken over by weeds and ceases to be a garden.

Stein outlines some of the measures she used in her own garden to make it less dependent on her attentions — using native species when possible, along with non-natives that are at home in the same conditions as they. This means revising paper garden designs and compromising on colours, but the results, she hopes, will make her gardens less sad when she can no longer look after them. In a garden populated by plants that are quasi-weeds, the gradient between “garden” and “untended nature” is less steep.

I have often thought that a similar approach would make gardening less of a struggle in the latter part of the summer in a climate with little or no summer rainfall. Especially in a garden whose soil is sandy and full of tree roots. Artfully arrange the tough plants that tolerate such conditions and voila — a garden that looks after itself. Of course there will still be mowing and edging, cutting back and cutting down, and yes, some weeding too, but no longer that feeling of battling an implacable adversary who is slowly winning, cosseting feeble darlings and helplessly watching them succumb despite my efforts.

August is a good month for me to think about this, because my garden looks pretty sad, at least in the harsh light of noon. There is a weary, crispy look to things. It would be seedier if I hadn’t done a lot of deadheading and cutting down of old stalks in the past week. The pond area is especially beaten-down, thanks to the busy paws of a raccoon family — a mother and two or maybe three little guys. I should be used to this by now; there’s always a raccoon family. Several generations may have spent the summer here since we dug the pond in 1993. I don’t mind, really. In a way it’s good to know my patch provides shelter and a livelihood to creatures, but I wish they didn’t make such a mess. The plantings around the pond are supposed to be lush and jungly, a green oasis even in summer, but it’s hard to sustain that illusion when plants are broken down and mashed flat.

Never mind. I originally meant to say that August is a sort of time-out month in the garden. The plans and aspirations of spring have either succeeded or failed by now. It’s not too early to make some new plans; indeed, September is a great month for reworking and replanting. Rip out a Senecio that has never looked good, along with excess Geranium sanguineum (a rather sneaky spreader) and replace with the young plants of white Echinacea grown from seed this spring. Someday they will be joined by a Dierama and Gaura that are now just seeds in pots. Liatris looks great with white Echinacea, and there is a soft orange poppy, none of whose names I know, that would be just the accent for the planting.

Who knows how these notions will turn out in reality?

That’s the thing about gardening — so much of it is done in the gardener’s mind and in some perfect future. Much better than futzing with weeds.

 

The "jungle" by the pond (in June)

The “jungle” by the pond (in June)

Hey! There’s That Dog Again!

Farmer Brown froze in his tracks; the cows stared wide-eyed b... on Twitpic

I’m a big fan of Gary Larson’s Far Side and rue the day he stopped drawing those bizarre and wickedly funny cartoons. One of my favourites shows a couple of typical Larson cows discovered in the act of drawing a meat chart of a human figure. The caption reads: Farmer Brown froze in his tracks; the cows stared wide-eyed back at him. Somewhere, off in the distance, a dog barked.

I recently read a review of a book I’m reading — Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven — taking the author to task for ending a scene with the “ultimate cliche” of a dog barking in the distance.

I googled the phrase, wondering just how much of a cliche it could be. A 2010 article in Slate listed authors from James Joyce to Jodi Picoult who have put variations on this barking dog into their novels. Kurt Vonnegut used it consciously as a kind of leitmotiv in Slaughterhouse Five.

Side note: compiling this information is a lot easier now that ebooks can be searched for particular words or phrases. I’m betting the average reader would hardly notice these recurrent dogs (except as they are used in Slaughterhouse Five, where they are meant to be noticed).

Eventually, an uneasy feeling crept into my ruminations. Could there be — oh, surely not! — a barking dog somewhere in the Herbert West Series, written by one A. Driscoll? I pulled up the books on Adobe Reader and searched on “dog.” And there it was, in Islands of the Gulf Volume 2, The Treasure. Young Herbert West, during an awkward “date” with a girl called Violet, hears a dog barking in the distance when he should be carried away with the thrill of kissing Violet.

Well, dang!

So really — what’s going on here? Why do so many writers, including quite a few highly-regarded ones, make this barking dog an accessory to scenes in their novels? In my case, it was unconscious. I lived the scene as I wrote it, and I heard that dog. Revisiting this scene in the course of multiple revisions of the text, I never considered deleting the dog.

That Larson cartoon is a parody of the Moment of Crisis, as when Farmer Brown realizes those cows are Up To Something Serious. Even while laughing at the cartoon, I was reminded of similar moments in various novels, where a terrifying realization breaks upon the protagonist. They know I’m a fake. He’s planning to kill me. Those things aren’t human.  Here, the barking dog is more than a filler; it’s a reminder of the ordinary world in which the terrible thing is happening, highlighting the contrast between the mundane and the terrible.

If you find a barking dog in a piece of your writing, put out the dog and reread the paragraph. If its fine without the dog, leave it out. If a necessary tinge of poignancy is missing sans dog, let it back in.

Things other than dogs may serve the same purpose if the presence of a dog is either implausible in the situation or the writer is dutifully trying to avoid cliches. Consider the following:

A bird sang far away, and another replied, nearby.

A little breeze stirred the curtains.

A moth bumped against the lampshade.

A burst of laughter erupted from the street.

A siren wailed in the distance. (This one may be just as common as the dog).

On the other hand, the barking dog may be seen as a secret detail that unites a diversity of writers. William Faulkner, Jackie Collins, Chuck Palahniuk, Stephen King and Henning Mankell are all members of the Order of the Barking Dog. So am I.

Let Me Tell You This…

Here’s my final word on “Show, don’t tell.”

This phrase is sanctimoniously quoted in almost every discussion among writers. Critiques frequently contain the comment, “Too much telling, not enough showing.”

This has started to bug me. It’s too pat, repeated so often it has become meaningless. What’s more, it’s a rule that’s broken all the time, by successful, widely published authors.

I recently started reading Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay. People have gushed about his books to the point I decided to try one as summer vacation reading. Imagine my surprise when I found the beginning, the all-important-hook-‘em-in-the-first-few-pages part to consist of Telling. Paragraph upon paragraph of it:

Amid the ten thousand noises and the jade-and-gold and the whirling dust of Xinan, he had often stayed awake all night among friends, drinking spiced wine in the North District with the courtesans.

They would listen to flute or pipa music and declaim poetry, test each other with jibes and quotes, sometimes find a private room with a scented, silken woman, before weaving unsteadily home after the dawn drums sounded curfew’s end, to sleep away the day instead of studying.

Here in the mountains, alone in hard, clear air by the waters of Kuala Nor, far to the west of the imperial city, beyond the borders of the empire, even, Tai was in a narrow bed by darkfall, under the first brilliant stars, and awake at sunrise.

In spring and summer the birds woke him. This was a place where thousands upon thousands nested noisily: fish-hawks and cormorants, wild geese and cranes. The geese made him think of friends far away. Wild geese were a symbol of absence: in poetry, in life. Cranes were fidelity, another matter.

Pure “telling,” with backstory yet, and three one-sentence paragraphs, another no-no. And yet, it’s beautiful, compelling writing. It captured my attention and kept it.

So now I’m thinking that “Show, don’t tell,”  is not a rule but a metaphor, a short way of saying “Write vivid, smoothly flowing sentences that create images in readers’ minds and resonate memorably in their ears.” Or my favourite: “Make a mind-movie for your reader.”

Now back to GGK’s version of Tang Dynasty China.

Book “Reviews”

I spent my blogging time today writing a book “review” on Goodreads. You can see it in the sidebar, along with others I’ve written.

Why the quotation marks? Because I don’t think my comments on Goodreads, or most people’s “reviews” there or on Amazon, are really book reviews. Real reviews take effort to write. The reviewer should know something about the author and their other works, should systematically cover all aspects of the book they’re reviewing — characters, setting, plot, writing style — in context.

Who has time for that? Much easier to dash off a few impressions and descriptions of one’s emotional reaction to reading a book. And maybe that’s all a prospective reader needs. It may be that the literary book review is strictly the province of the literary world, not the realm of consumer fiction. After all, no one writes literary reviews of blenders, pantyhose or lawn mowers.

Call me old school, but it still feels funny to call those comments “reviews.”

Hitchhikers and Freeloaders

I grow a lot of plants in pots, because the dry, rooty soil of my garden (about which I complain frequently) is not hospitable to the delicate and needy. So delphiniums, lilies and even tomatoes live in big pots parked along paths and driveway.

As I water and fuss over these potted prima donnas, I often find seedlings coming up in the pot soil, everything from lamb’s ears to chervil to infant peach trees. Tiny and delicate, they are easy to ignore, and as they grow many of them look really good (the beauty of youth). They display the very qualities of leaf shape and colour that made them welcome in the garden to begin with. Sometimes these self-sown interlopers pair so well with the legitimate occupant of the pot that I don’t even think of yanking them out. (I actually have a problem yanking out any plant that’s healthy and attractive — which explains a lot about this garden).

Sometimes the pot seedlings are useful plants. All my Verbena bonariensis died last winter, so I’m happy to see a few popping up in the tomato pots and will transplant them into their own pots and eventually to spots in the garden beds. A kale plant that came up in one of last year’s tomato pots continues to thrive in the pot and furnishes a few kale leaves for salads and stuff.

But there is a Dark Side. Unchecked, the little seedling grows and grows, eventually overwhelming the legitimate occupant of the pot. I stupidly left a rose campion in one of the 2-gallon pots occupied by a “Stargazer” lily, and a plant of lamb’s ears in the other. By the time I got around to wondering why the lilies didn’t look like blooming as they had done for several summers, it was too late. An emergency repotting job only gave the lilies better quarters in which to die.

Then there was the young mullein that almost did in a bright orange lily that had lived in its pot for years. It survived, possibly because the lilies had gone dormant (but dormant looks a lot like dead, so I wasn’t sure until the lily sprouted out this spring).

September 16, 2013

Think about it — a pot contains a finite clump of soil. It’s usually improved, enriched soil, but there is only so much of it. A plant like a lily may thrive in that situation because it’s the exclusive tenant of the pot, with all of the nutrients and water available for it alone. But when a vigorous plant like a rose campion takes over, it hogs all the goodies — with predictable results.

It’s amazing how a gardener with decades of experience can ignore something this obvious. Even now — today — a self-seeded forget-me-not prospers and blooms in a pot prepared for a purchased clematis (“Pink Fantasy”). But see how pretty the tiny blue flowers are, like little stars…

June 28, 2014 I will have to harden my heart and extract the forget-me-not. They grow all over the place, but there is only one pink clematis. It did quite well this spring and I would like to see it bigger and better next year.

Finally, here are some hitchhikers that can’t possibly harm their host.

Tiny mushrooms in pot with Plectranthus cuttings

Tiny mushrooms in pot with Plectranthus cuttings

The Garden at Midsummer

Few words, lots of pictures…

June 1, 2014A pair of house sparrows moved into this birdhouse which had been unoccupied for years. Even though they’re the most common of birds, it’s nice to see them coming and going. I think they have since launched a gang of young birds.

 

June 1, 2014The ex-vegetable patch, now evolving into something else, looks deceptively lush, with an old kale plant rising above lavender and sage.

 

June 1, 2014More lushness and promise in the front garden at the beginning of June, with forget-me-nots hanging on, Allium christophii, a blue hardy geranium, and foliage of asters and crocosmia. Euphorbia “Humpty Dumpty” in the background.

 

June 12, 2014June 12, 2014

 

 

 

 

The murky pink of an unfolding delphinium is a contrast to the unsubtle orange of a lily. Both grow in pots.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

June 20, 2014Mulleins have gone from phallic to torch-like, although this one looks like it has an attitude. Note the hose snaking along the path. It hasn’t really rained since May 8, so watering with sprinklers is necessary.

 

025

June 22, 2014The ever-reliable climbing rose, whose name I don’t know, is in full bloom. There are a few buds left to open, but you can see the very first flowers browning off. I’m always amazed that this plant blooms so well, since it’s planted right next to one of the Norway maples (whose presence is partly justified because it supports the rose).

 

June 22, 2014

June 22, 2014

The tomato plants are starting to bloom, so maybe there will be a few tomatoes by September. Growing in pots, they are dwarfed specimens, but would do worse in the dry, rooty soil of the garden.

 

 

 

Only now…

In the fourth of H.P.  Lovecraft’s stories serialized under the title “Herbert West, Reanimator,” West tells the narrator that a traveler collapsed and died while asking for directions at his door — presenting him with an opportunity for a really fresh specimen for one of his reanimation experiments. When the fellow comes back to life, he reveals to the narrator that West murdered him. But before that, the first words he utters as life returns to him are “Only now.” Unfortunately, with the return of full consciousness, the subject remembers his murder and never completes that intriguing sentence. Only now… what? Since H.P.L. was an atheist, it was probably not a secret of the afterlife. But “only” is an interesting word.

1. Only I can help you now.

2. I only can help you now.

3. I can only help you now.

4. I can help only you now.

5. I can help you only now.

Five sentences with quite different meanings. The wording is identical except for placement of one word — only. A slippery little word, sometimes redundant, occasionally powerful, as in #1 above. (Sentence #2, in my opinion, is problematic, but I included it for the sake of completeness). A warning before you read any more — I am no grammarian. Like a musician who doesn’t read music, I write by ear.

“Only” is an adverb, derived from Old English “anlic,” meaning “one-like.” But it’s also used as an adjective (“This is my only chance”) and a conjunction (replacing “but,” as in “I wanted to do it right, only I failed”). It can even be a noun, as in “You are my one and only.”

People are often careless in their use of “only,” especially in conversation, tossing it into sentences without much concern as to where it lands. “I’ll only be a minute,” one says, when “I’ll be only a minute” is more precise. There is a tendency to put “only” near the beginning of a sentence, often immediately before the verb. (Makes sense when it’s an adverb). The verb is the action word in a sentence, and “only,”  intended here to convey brevity or insignificance, is applied to the action word rather than to “minute,” the word that really conveys brevity.

This use of “only” is as a “softener,” a word that tones down the impact of a sentence, turning it from a demand to a request. In such a situation,  you may wish to use “just” rather than “only.” “Just” is a kind of throwaway word, and often a sentence is improved by throwing it out.

If you want a rule, it might be this:  put “only” right before the word it applies to. Move it around until the sentence conveys your intended meaning.

“Only her hairdresser knows for sure.” Indeed she does.

“God only knows.” He isn’t talking, but someone else might, unless only God knows, in which case prayer is your only option.

 

Thugs, Prima Donnas… and Mulleins

When I began making this garden in 1992, I didn’t have a lot to spend on the project, so I was happy to fill up the space with pass-along plants from other gardeners, waifs and strays of unknown provenance and tough, easy-to-grow self-seeders. Many of these are still with me, prospering despite the sandy, tree-root-infested soil and dry summers. I’ve written about them here already.

Like most gardeners, I’ve also wanted to grow more challenging plants — refined roses, delphiniums, oriental lilies and (the gardener’s supreme challenge), Himalayan blue poppies. For several years, I pored over the catalogues of a nursery located in the Fraser Valley, and every year brought home a selection of their offerings. I ordered seeds of carefully-researched perennials and successfully raised seedlings. Some of those acquisitions are still with me, and a few are doing well.

Geranium "Anne Folkard" and Clematis integrifolia

Geranium “Anne Folkard” and Clematis integrifolia

 

Dictamnus albus

Dictamnus albus

But. (There’s always a “but”).

My garden is now bursting full. If I want to try something new, something has to be removed. Quite a few of the purchased and grown-from-seed plants are long gone, remembered only from a sad collection of labels in my garden shed. Cosmos atrosanguineus, Gaura lindheimeri “Siskiyou Pink,” Lamium maculatum “White Nancy,” R.I.P. Farewell, Coreopsis verticillata “Moonbeam,” Trifolium repens “Dragon’s Blood” and Cimicifuga racemosa.

The good old tough plants are, of course, thriving. Hellebores, toadflax, rose campion, lamb’s ears, lady’s mantle, foxgloves, fireweed and a number of ferns. The fussy, “quality” plants, however, live in pots. No root competition and individual attention from the gardener in the form of fertilizer and water.

Potted Oriental Lily and Zeke the Cat

Potted Oriental Lily and Zeke the Cat

Pots aren’t foolproof, however. I bought this potted lily a week ago to replace two that gave up the ghost because I allowed self-seeded “hitchhiker” plants to take over their pots. Another threat is excessive winter wetness. A couple of my delphiniums perished from that, and it was literally death to my idea of growing blue poppies in pots. Better results may be possible if one ensured really good drainage and situated the pots in a spot out of the rain (and remembered to check for excessive dryness at times over the winter).

For the past three years, my blue poppies have had their own bed near a magnolia. Last year they bloomed; this year they decided to give it a miss, even though they look healthy. I am catering to them with mulches of compost and peat, extra fertilizer, regular watering and shade from afternoon sun. As in farming and hockey, maybe next year.

Tough plants need to be controlled and discouraged. Delicate beauties need to be cosseted and coaxed. Pots aren’t always a solution and there are no guarantees.

But mulleins look great most of the time. I have given over my former vegetable patch to herbs and mulleins — Verbascum olympicum and Verbascum chaixii. Even before they bloom, they look interesting.

Verbascum chaixii rosette from above

Verbascum chaixii rosette from above

Mulleins seem to know that anticipation is almost better than fulfillment. They take a long time to grow their bloom stalks and look great through the process.

Olympic mulleins, Verbascum olympicum

Olympic mulleins, Verbascum olympicum

In the end, I have to ignore the distinctions between tough plants, refined plants, purchased or self-seeded. Right now, the garden looks pretty good. Right now. That’s what counts.

May 31, 2014

 

 

Mr. King and I

A few weeks ago, as I began reading 11/22/63 concurrently with Dr. Sleep, I realized that I’ve had a decades-long relationship with Stephen King.

I bought a copy of Carrie in a used book store in Vancouver B.C. in (I think) 1975 and found it horribly fascinating, not so much because of Carrie’s paranormal power or the bloodbath at the end, but the stark picture of high school culture. Salem’s Lot is a true horror, but told with more subtlety than is common in that genre. The Shining is the same, only better, combining human drama with supernatural evil in a totally compelling way. Then there’s The Stand, the ultimate “what if” scenario. I was on board for just about all his books for years, but I never did get involved with the “Dark Tower” saga and eventually I began to lose touch with Mr. King. While I love big, fat books, I got tired of cataclysmic conclusions (as in Needful Things and Insomnia, for example). The Tommyknockers and It are saved (barely) by memorable characters. It also features one of King’s trademarks — a vivid portrayal of childhood and the past. I’ve read The Dead Zone, Firestarter and Christine more than once, and Dolores Claiborne and Gerald’s Game are among my favourites. Oh, and Pet Sematary — now there’s a perfect blend of human tragedy and supernatural evil, just as good as or better than The Shining. Over the years, I’ve spent many enjoyable hours reading (and re-reading) King’s books. As immersive entertainment, the best of them are hard to equal.

Some people don’t seem to realize that Stephen King is not simply a writer of horror fiction. It’s true that his early books were squarely in that genre, and just about all of his writing includes some element of the paranormal, but many of his books could also be called psychological fiction. Their common element is not horror (meaning evil supernatural entities or powers) but people dealing with difficult, even impossible situations, some caused by evil supernatural entities, but others resulting from bad luck and human frailty. (Think of Cujo or Gerald’s Game). Most of them seem to originate with the question “What if…?” Maybe “speculative fiction” is a better label. Readers who are put off by horror may avoid King altogether, missing out on some great reads.

I was sparked into writing my first book (The Friendship of Mortals) after reading King’s On Writing. This slender book made writing seem do-able, something not beyond the capabilities of a person with a full time job. Before reading it, I had always supposed that the only way to be a writer was to write for a living, preferably after completing a degree in Creative Writing and hanging out with bohemians in some writers’ utopia. I already had an idea for a novel — to explore the personality and motivation of H.P. Lovecraft’s character Herbert West, with a librarian at Miskatonic University as narrator. King’s book got me started, and brought me to this point, writing a blog post in tribute to this versatile and wildly successful author.

Malodorous Moments in May

A number of plants have been given names indicating that a foul smell is part of their characteristics. The Gladwin iris, for example, has the Latin name Iris foetidissima. Others simply have a reputation for smelliness. Descriptions of Geranium macrorrhizum almost always include a reference to its foul odor. I find both of these designations exaggerated. Neither plant emits any kind of smell unless the leaves are crushed or at least disturbed, and the smells, though not exactly perfumes, aren’t that bad.

The strange thing is that some distinctly stinky plants seem to have eluded a bad reputation.

After the lilacs have faded and before the giant nameless climbing rose begins to bloom, my garden goes through a distinctly smelly period. The culprit is the Italian arum (Arum italicum). It’s a tough, useful plant, with showy marbled leaves that emerge in fall and last into spring, and weird little clusters of seeds in late summer — like tiny, bright orange-red corncobs on sticks. But in May it blooms, and the flowers, like so many of this family (think skunk cabbage), stink. The pollinators of these plants are flies, so it makes sense that they emit smells we consider objectionable. My Italian arum’s flowers smell a bit like creosote, but even more (I think) like rotten teeth breath — a pretty disgusting aroma to be wafting around the garden on a calm, warm, evening.

I acquired this plant because it was enthusiastically endorsed by the late Henry Mitchell, one of my favourite garden writers. He wrote at least two essays extolling its virtues. Beth Chatto, another esteemed gardener, recommends it in The Dry Garden, one of my gardening bibles. Neither of these authors says a word about the foul smell the arum emits during its bloom time. Descriptions of the plant at various websites fail to mention this quality as well — a disservice to those researching potential additions to their gardens.

Jurgen Dahl, a well-known German garden writer, has a chapter called “The Stinking Garden” in his book The Curious Gardener. He mentions three members of the arum family — dragon arum (Dranunculus vulgaris), voodoo lily (Sauromatum venosum) and the enormous and amazing tropical Amorphophallus titanum, which produces the world’s biggest and smelliest flower  (the flower is up to 2 meters tall). Of a plant that bloomed in 1996 in a botanical garden in Bonn, Dahl says, “It stank infernally for eight days.” (Henry Mitchell wrote about another specimen of this plant, and definitely mentioned the smell). But there is no mention of the Italian arum as a candidate for Dahl’s stinking garden. OK, I concede that its smell isn’t noticeable all the time, only on calm, warm evenings. But that’s true of a lot of fragrant plants too.

I began to think that my Italian arum was an anomaly, smellier than normal. After all, I did not buy the seeds from a reputable supplier, merely collected a few from plants near a walking/cycling trail I use frequently. I was pretty pleased with myself for identifying the plant while it was in leaf and watched for the seeds to ripen months later. Maybe this was a vulgar cousin of the Italian variety, I thought. But when I added “smelly” to my search, I got results. An article on the website of the Cooperative Extension Service of the University of Arkansas says that the flowers of the Italian arum smell like feces, and also mentions that the plant has been given the rather rude epithet “priest’s pintle,” because of the anatomical look of the flower. But the author of the article also calls it a “delightful little plant” (which it is when out of flower). So, confirmation at last, although I disagree with the description of the smell. But whether it’s reminiscent of rotten teeth or poop, it is undeniably foul.

Italian Arum

Italian Arum

 

Italian arum seed cluster, October 2011

Italian arum seed cluster, October 2011

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