Month: January 2012

Prowling the Garden With Zeke the Cat

Ever since Pete, one of my three cats, was killed on a nearby street, I have been much more restrictive with my remaining two cats, Zeke and Zoey. Zoey is less apt to roam, so I trust her to go out alone after supper, even on these still-dark evenings. But Zeke goes out on a leash. He has taken to it surprisingly well. We amble around, following our nose. Well, Zeke follows his nose, and I follow him, rerouting him only when he’s inclined to take off into a neighbour’s yard, through a hedge or over a fence.

Zeke on the Garden Path

These expeditions usually take place around nine in the evening. I strap Zeke into his harness, attach the leash and out we go. I take a flashlight along, just in case, but Zeke definitely has the advantage when it comes to night vision. More than once I’ve discovered rocks that I could swear don’t exist in daylight. When Zeke decides to take a short cut across a perennial bed or between shrubs, I have to illuminate the scene so I don’t step on anything important. Sometimes I tell him that his preferred path doesn’t work for me, and we have to take a different route. Zeke is suprisingly amenable to these negotiations.

He doesn’t always follow the same route, and the length of our expeditions is determined by weather; if it’s cold, wet or windy, a quick in-and-out is enough. On calm, damp evenings that are relatively warm, we stay out longer and go farther. Sometimes we just circle the pond half a dozen times, stopping at intervals while Zeke checks out the smells in various spots. More ambitious rambles start when we cross a narrow perennial border along the west side of the house. I’ve managed to convince Zeke that the best crossing spot is one where there is a stepping stone for me to use, so as to avoid trampling dormant plants. We sneak through our neighbours’ front yard and down their driveway to the boulevard. A couple of times we’ve gone quite far from home; in fact, I’ve asked Zeke if he used to wander around like this when I let him out on his own, but of course he doesn’t say.

I’ve certainly gained a new perspective on the garden and immediate neighbourhood on these cat-walks. Who would have suspected that a dried out stump of a foxglove plant would have such significance for the cat? He sniffs it and rubs his face on it repeatedly before moving on. Certain parts of neighbours’ hedges also offer endless fascination. There is hardly ever anyone else around, and the streets look surreal in the weird orange light. Once we did meet a couple who told me that a man who lived on their street long ago also used to take a cat for walks on a leash. So Zeke and I are continuing a tradition!

I think Zeke enjoys our walks, and he definitely likes the “kitty treats” I hand out when we get home, as a reward for good behaviour. (Zoey gets treats too, even though she’s been inside).



Second Novel Published

Islands of the Gulf, Volume One, the second novel of my Herbert West Trilogy, is now available on Smashwords.

When I finished writing The Friendship of Mortals, I suspected that a sequel was called for. Charles Milburn, the narrator of that book, wasn’t finished with his friend Herbert West, and neither was I. At the same time, I wanted to try my hand at a piece of writing set here on the west coast of Canada, in particular among the Gulf Islands. Why not combine the two elements and see what would happen? After all, I began writing in 2000 as a kind of experiment, with no set expectations.

The first task was to get Herbert West, renegade physician and amoral scientist, from New England to the Gulf Islands. For reasons I will not disclose here, he renames himself Francis Dexter and, with his former servant Andre Boudreau, undertakes a long journey — from New York City to New Brunswick and then via St. Louis to New Orleans. There, the two end up on a peculiar tramp steamer which takes them across the Gulf of Mexico, through the Panama Canal, and northward along the west coast of North America. The trip is not without incident, and at its conclusion, Francis and Andre find themselves on a (fictitious) Gulf Island called Bellefleur. There, the process of transformation continues — Herbert West to Francis Dexter, amoral scientist to country doctor, revivifier of corpses to… something else.

Because Islands of the Gulf is a long book, I decided to publish it in two volumes. Volume Two will be available in July 2012.

The Invaders: Pushy Plants in My Garden

After last week’s post about peach-leaf bellflower, I got to thinking about all the other plants with spreading tendencies that inhabit my small urban garden (50 x 120 feet, including my house, garden shed, garage, driveway and various walks and paths). Quite frankly, I was appalled when I realized how many pushy plants I have. No wonder there’s no room for anything new.

So I thought I would compile a list of them — trees, shrubs, climbers and herbaceous plants that spread by running roots, offsets or suckers. The list doesn’t include “true” weeds (bindweed, for example), but does have plants that are probably considered weeds by some. Enough said.

Trees: the only invasive one I have is the Tree of Heaven, Ailanthus altissima, which sends up shoots here and there. Digging them out, I find that they originate in structures that look like brains, except they are a yellowish colour. Very sinister. If not removed, the shoots will grow into more trees, and I would have a grove of what has been called “the world’s toughest urban tree.” Indeed, but one is more than enough for me.


The common Lilac, Syringa vulgaris, sends up suckers with abandon. I remove them, so as not to end up with a lilac thicket that swamps whatever has been planted around the shrub. I suspect that named varieties are less apt to sucker, but are probably not as tough. Besides, this lilac was here before I arrived in 1992, so has the privilege of seniority.

Oregon Grape (Mahonia aquifolium) is a native shrub that can grow to 10 feet, sending up suckers similar to those of the lilac. It produces lots of dark blue berries as well. If these are allowed to fall, the seeds inside them produce many seedlings. Again, a thicket results. I planted two mahonias years ago, and am reaping the consequences. But a couple of young suckers are ideally positioned someday to foil shortcut-seeking letter-carriers and the like, which may be one of those disguised blessings.

Another native shrub is the Snowberry, Symphoricarpos albus. Its white berries, borne on skinny stems, are striking in winter, but it spreads by running roots that send up shoots all around. One of my reference books says it’s “too rampant to be admitted to the garden.” Too late, in my case; I thought snowberry a fitting companion for my Garry Oak, since they occur together naturally. Now I spend quite a lot of time cutting unwanted snowberry shoots.

The Nootka rose (Rosa nutkana) is one of our two native wild roses, and yes, I have planted one here, close by the Oregon grape. It has that suckering habit, as I’ve found while edging the bed in which it lives. I’m thinking about removing the shrub altogether, but it takes me a long time to get to the point of actual planticide. The horror of finality, you know. In the meantime, the rose prospers and spreads.

Climbers and Groundcovers:

I have only one problematic climber, but it’s a doozy — Ivy (Hedera species). I have three kinds, including English Ivy (H. helix), which is branded an invasive alien here. It isn’t as sneaky as some of the other invasives, but bears careful watching and hard pruning. I recommend removing the flowering growths before berries ripen and are dispersed by birds. We have more than enough of this plant here. The other two types I have are not quite as aggressive, but I regularly whack them back before they cover too much territory, horizontally or vertically.

Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudifolium) hasn’t been a problem here — yet. It’s supported by a trellis, and I’ve been vigilant about removing any branches that touch the ground before they grow roots and develop new plants. Those unaware of this habit, take note.

Periwinkle is a great groundcover. Both the large (Vinca major) and small (V. minor) forms really cover the ground and anything that might be growing upon it. V. major is suitable only for large areas, but even V. minor can move pretty fast. Either restrict them to places where nothing else will grow (beneath evergreen trees and shrubs, for example) or be prepared to do a lot of control measures. I do both.


Japanese Anemone (Anemone x hybrida) is an attractive, late-summer-blooming plant, but it sends out running roots that pop up offsets from the parent plant, not always in situations where they are welcome. In my garden, these anemones are in a south-facing bed, and so want to spread southward, among shorter plants. This conflicts with my intentions for the bed, but the anemones don’t care about that.

There is a tawny-orange daylily (probably Hemerocallis fulva) that I brought to this garden when I came here in 1992. In books, it’s lauded as a plant for controlling erosion on banks. If I had known of its colonizing tendencies, I would have left it behind in Saskatchewan. Instead of forming clumps that become fatter and more impressive with the years, this species of daylily runs about, popping up where it pleases, even in the middle of other plants. Given enough space, I suppose it would eventually cover a large area. But that’s not what I had in mind, so have spent many hours digging it out. A double-flowered garden hybrid called “Kwanso” shares its parent’s running habit. When I was a newish gardener with space to fill, I gratefully accepted a gift of “Kwanso,”  rather to my regret. With considerable vigilance, I have managed to confine it to a spot on one side of the pond, but regularly contemplate total eradication.

Phygelius aequalis or Cape Fuchsia is an impressive plant from South Africa, featuring  clusters of long, slender,  trumpet-shaped flowers in yellow or coral,  on 3-foot, somewhat woody stems.  It tolerates a certain amount of drought and even some shade.  Maintenance consists of cutting the old stems down in early spring. Very nice, but it also spreads sneakily underground. You think it’s a well-behaved shrubby thing, until you find big, healthy sprouts yards away from the parent plant. Given that said parent is pretty hefty — 4 x 4 feet — one is enough. New plants showing up among peonies and irises are not welcome. (Too bad, says the Phygelius).

Irises, especially the bigger types, spread by growing new rhizomes, and can cover quite lot of ground if not attended to. I’ve read that one must divide and replant irises every few years to keep them healthy, but mine seem a bit too healthy, even the ones that rarely bloom because of excessive shade. Digging them up and replanting might be a good idea, if only to get rid of the unwanted surplus. To be fair, though, irises can’t really be called invasive. Iris cristata, a small, spring-blooming type, has slowly spread throughout a couple of my beds over the years, much to my delight.

Another unexpected spreader is a form of Gentian whose name I do not know. Its main bloom period is in March, but I’ve known it to produce a few flowers in fall and winter as well. Planted in a semi-sunny, tree-root-free bed, it has spread to cover an area the size of a (smallish) bath mat, coming into conflict with some bergenias on one side. I plan to take advantage of its vigor by moving a few divisions into another part of the bed, at present occupied by common violets, Viola odorata, another near-weed. Which reminds me of another violet with spreading tendencies — V. labradorica, a scentless but attractive type with purple-flushed leaves, that is a useful groundcover in dry shade. It’s fairly well-behaved, but should be weeded out from around small hostas and ferns before it gets too chummy with them.

Peach-Leaf Bellflower: Garden Enemy #2

I was out in the garden on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, doing what I expected to be routine cleanup — cutting down old perennial stalks, removing the odd overgrown specimen, etc. But I realized I had a bigger problem on my hands — peach-leaf bellflower (Campanula persicifolia), entrenched and spreading all over one of my sunnier and tree-root-free perennial beds. A planting of variegated irises and a specimen of Eryngium yuccifolium were threatened with oblivion as the peach-leaf pest sent out new offsets and and an ever-thickening mat of roots.

I happily included this plant in my post called Tough Plants for Dry Shade, and I still think it belongs there, but now I issue a warning:  do not plant Campanula persicifolia in places other than dry shade, especially if you garden on light, sandy soil. In hospitable, sunny spots, it becomes a rampant thug. Plant delphiniums there instead.

In a hasty attempt to get rid of the unwanted bellflowers, I went from hand-pulling (useless except for seedlings or brand-new offsets), to stabbing with a trowel, to deploying the gardener’s big gun — a digging fork. That did the trick, except that I dug up a bunch of tulip and crocus bulbs along with the bellflower mats, and, worst of all, sliced off a nice hyacinth bud that was awaiting spring under the soil surface.

That’s the really awful thing about spreading plants — they cover up other plants and, unless the gardener has a really good memory and/or really meticulous records, render them invisible. The busy gardener glances over a bed and sees nice, healthy plants of peach-leaf bellflower, totally forgetting about the irises, eryngiums and bulbs that were planted there in the first place. When the truth finally dawns and Something Must Be Done Right Now, havoc and destruction ensue.

Some may say I’m being unfair to Campanula persicifolia. Just because I was too lazy to keep an eye on things, I need not vilify the bellflower, which is an attractive and reliable plant. Maybe so, but gardeners should know about a plant’s bad habits before they introduce it into their premises, so I think this screed is justified. (And of course I’m still upset about that hyacinth).

On a related topic, following my post on Plant ID, in which I made observations about different kinds of plant labels, I actually received as a Christmas gift a couple of dozen rather nice permanent metal labels with solid plastic stakes to hold and display them. I’ve decided to use them to mark valued plants that are at risk of being overwhelmed by the rambunctious “tough plants” that I have allowed to proliferate here. The idea is that the labels will remind me to check on the well-being of the plants they represent, thus ensuring that the markers will not be of the RIP sort.

Oh yes — and what is Garden Enemy #1? In my garden, it’s those maple trees, of course. I’ve ranted about them before, and will likely do so again.