Garden

Preparing to Cut

No, this isn’t about editing the work in progress (although I am doing that). It’s about surgery, specifically plant surgery. It’s pruning time.

I have admitted that I hate pruning, because of its terrible finality. Once amputated, that branch can’t be reattached. For weeks now I’ve been planning what cuts to make on certain shrubs, notably the magnolia in the front garden. It grows sideways more than upward. In full summer leaf it becomes a hulking monster, so every year I remove two or three branches to restrain this tendency.

Other plants present different challenges, like the holly I try to keep from exceeding 20 feet. Its prickly leaves don’t help the operation. Then there’s the “dwarf” apple tree that isn’t dwarf. Pruning fruit trees should be pruned to maximize productivity. That’s not important to me, because my tree is a “Yellow Transparent,” which fruits extremely early. I’m not interested in apples when there are peaches and cherries available, and these apples don’t keep well, so I’d rather the tree didn’t produce many. Still, I’d rather prune it correctly, rather than by guess and gut-feel.

Then there’s the timing issue. Several years ago, I clipped back an old plant of the climbing rose “New Dawn” early in March. A week later we had a few days when the temperature fell below freezing. Not much below freezing, but I wonder if that’s why 90% of the rose died shortly afterward. In only a few days it went from leafing out to wilting. While not totally dead, it has never recovered. I don’t know if being pruned just before a freeze caused this, but it has certainly made me nervous about rose pruning.

The worst pruning job, though, is the Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium). It’s a plant native to this region with all sorts of virtues (drought tolerance, deer resistance, attractive foliage, bee-attracting flowers), but mine is tree-size (15 feet tall). And it suckers. Its huge old trunks are surrounded by a thicket of young, vigorous shoots that will no doubt become huge in turn. If I had known its growth habits, I would never have planted it, but all the books I consulted said it was a wonderful choice. And so it is, for large gardens, but not for the small suburban lot.

Pruning the Oregon grape, therefore, isn’t done only with clippers, loppers, and saw. An axe and spade are needed to remove the larger suckers. I had better get this done while the weather remains cool and cloudy; it’s not a job for a warm, sunny day. And, like the holly and most roses, the plant is prickly.

At least I now have a good, indeed an excellent ladder. It’s designed for pruning, with only three legs, one of which can be shortened to ensure stability on uneven ground. Wrestling it from its spot in the garage isn’t fun, so once out it stays out until all jobs for which it’s needed are complete.

Three-legged ladder and Photinia

Otherwise my pruning tools are simple: clippers, loppers, saw. You can see them in the image at the top of the post. Gloves, of course. And for the giant holly, the pole pruner. It’s not my favourite tool, but with it fully extended, and by standing on the ladder’s top step, I can just about reach the top of the holly.

pole pruner by shed
Pole pruner. A heavy, awkward tool. Works better now that I’ve removed the saw.

The tools are assembled. The victims plants in need of pruning have been identified. Let the cutting begin!

Page from weather record book December 2021

Weather Anxiety

I am a weather nerd. I follow weather obsessively online, via forecasts, satellite and radar, a network of local observations, and meteorologists’ technical discussions. For the past several decades, I have recorded high and low temperatures, cloud types, approximate wind strength and direction, and precipitation every day. I know how weather works in my region. Until this year.

All day it has been windy. The trees are in full leaf now, and their branches toss and sway, throwing off twigs, leaves, and green unripe keys (maple seeds). Siberian irises just coming into bloom shimmy and shake, but one stem of a tall bearded variety (white with purple edges) bows down to the ground. The gardener hustles over, makes sure the stem is only bent and not broken, and administers first aid with a bamboo stake and a couple of ties.

An evening around the time of the summer solstice. There is no wind; the air is absolutely still and perfumed by a thousand rose flowers in bloom. Plants stand in their characteristic shapes, their leaves precisely angled to stems and stalks, each one with its own version of the colour green. The sun has slipped out of sight, but its light gilds the scene with perfection. The gardener stands and stares, a cluster of deadheads in one hand, secateurs in the other. As dusk softly advances, the garden becomes a place in which a mystery is about to be revealed.

I wrote these two paragraphs last May, back when local weather was what is generally termed “normal.” I think I intended them to be part of a blog post about weather from a gardener’s point of view. Then at the end of June came the “heat dome,” four days of abnormally hot temperatures. All kinds of records were shattered, 600 people died in the province of British Columbia, and a small town in the interior was pretty much destroyed by fire on a day when the local temperature topped out at nearly 50 degrees C.

Weird light at sunset. Orange light due to wildfire smoke.
Weird orange sunlight because of smoke from forest fires in the BC interior, 2018

Autumn came, a time that is usually benign and associated with harvest and plenty. Not this year in BC. After a dust-dry summer, copious rain in September and October quickly saturated soils. A succession of “atmospheric river” rainstorms arrived at the end of October and into November and brought catastrophic flooding to several communities. And I really mean catastrophic–homes destroyed, farm animals drowned, lives disrupted. Between fires and floods, thousands of people in this province were forced from their homes in 2021, some permanently.

There was a small tornado–in November, in Vancouver, BC! Nothing like the truly devastating tornados in the US in December, but both of those events were unusual and suggest that fundamental change is happening. Almost every week since June, weather in western Canada has been described as “extreme,” “record-breaking,” or “unprecedented.” Including extreme cold during the week between Christmas and the new year.

I spent an hour on Christmas day moving potted pelargoniums (tender geraniums) and the garden hose into the house, because three nights of -8 or -9 degrees C (16 to 18F) were predicted. The average low temperature at this time of year is 1C (34F). On Boxing Day, the temperature did not exceed -5C (23F), and that night my max-min thermometer recorded -10C (14F). All day, I was busy rotating hummingbird feeders in and out of the house as the liquid inside began to freeze. At first I tried a trick I saw on the internet: wrapping a string of incandescent Christmas lights around the feeder. It looked pretty, and one hummingbird even visited, after he got over his nervousness, but unfortunately the lights didn’t produce enough heat. I resorted to buying a third feeder so I always had one in the house to swap out with a freezing one outside. Sadly, I suspect some hummingbirds–females or juveniles–may have perished.

Hummingbird feeder with Christmas lights December 2021
Not the best photo, but it shows the Christmas light setup and a hummingbird visiting the feeder. Too bad the lights didn’t produce enough heat.

A short period of below normal cold isn’t unusual in the course of a winter, but it usually happens in January or February, not December. Same with the occasional summer heat wave–in July or August, not June. I can’t help thinking that this period of extreme cold right after the winter solstice somehow corresponds to the abnormal heat which arrived right after the summer solstice.

Right here, right now, the weather is out of whack. It’s tempting to attribute this to climate change, rather than to normal ups and downs. Against reason, I’m hoping this has just been a year of anomalous weather for western Canada, but three anomalies in the same year indicates something more fundamental. Governments and power companies now advise everyone to put together emergency kits in case of extensive power outages or evacuation orders. (Of course, we who live on the west coast are supposed to have such kits already, in anticipation of the Big One.)

Whatever the cause, I’m now experiencing weather anxiety, even though I haven’t been affected in any serious way (yet). When sounds of rain and wind wake me at night, I get up and doom-scroll check radars and satellites on whatever device is handy. Earplugs are now standard sleeping equipment. Normal isn’t normal any more. The past can no longer predict the future. Scanning my decades of weather observations tells me only about weather of the before times. The extremes of yesterday may be the normals of tomorrow.

Weather record books

Or maybe this is only a blip (well, three blips)? Take the Blizzard of 1996, for example. A metre and a half of snow fell on Victoria, BC over several days in late December, with a grand finale that buried cars and brought the city to a standstill for a week. It was one of those extreme, record-breaking, unprecedented weather events. But nothing like it has happened in the quarter-century since. So, climate change notwithstanding, I hope 2021 has just been a year of freakish weather in my part of the world, and we can return to blissfully boring in the near future. Recognizing, of course, that for some folks in the towns of Lytton, Merritt, Princeton, and in the Fraser Valley, the road back to normal may be long and hard, no matter what the weather.

Pink winter sunrise

Colour and Texture

The garden is entering its quiet time. Drab, even. But there are a few sights worth looking at. And winter sunrises are often spectacular, probably because they arrive late enough to be observed.

Perennial bed in front garden December 2021
Mixed colours and textures in this perennial bed brought out by morning sun.
Top of birch tree in back garden with a few remaining leaves
Last few yellow leaves on the birch.
Ornamental grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) "Little Bunny"
Ornamental grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) “Little Bunny” looks good even when dormant.
Winter jasmine yellow flowers on trellis
Winter jasmine is in full bloom. (Photo from last year, but it looks just like this now.)

Early bulbs are poking their noses up and new buds are visible on shrubs and trees. Soon there will be fresh colours and textures to see and admire.

Postscript: Remember the condemned rubber plant? It has had a reprieve. One cold day I brought it back inside. Since then we have had at least one frosty night that would have done it in. My new plan is to air-layer a new plant next summer, and to cultivate that new plant in a way that will make it look better than its predecessor.

Rubber plant left outside by shed, 2021
Reprieved and still alive inside!
Last orange leaves of Cotinus cogyggria (smoke bush)

Finale

It’s been a rainy, windy fall so far here on Vancouver Island. We’ve had none of the crisp, sunny autumn days that are some of the year’s best. In fact, it feels like we skipped from summer (hot and dry) to winter (rainy and windy).

The garden is a mess. I haven’t managed to do any edge-trimming or much end-of-season cleanup. I’m not obsessive about raking up every leaf any more, since I’ve heard that fallen leaves are a valuable resource for bugs and birds. (Let’s hope the bugs aren’t the kind that cause problems for gardeners.)

But there are always a few things worth looking at…

Amanita muscaria mushroom
This Amanita muscaria mushroom popped up by the pond
Pink oriental lily, last lily of 2021
The last lily of the year. This is the first time I’ve had a lily bloom in November.
Yellow chrysanthemum flowers
The always reliable yellow chrysanthemum, not eaten by deer this time.

I see it’s raining again, so back to the work in progress!

Rubber plant left outside by shed, 2021

Dead Plant Growing

This rubber plant (Ficus elastica) is on Death Row. It was there all summer, but didn’t know it. The plant thought it was on a holiday, but nights are cooler now. In a month or two, there will be a clear night with frost, and the rubber plant will die.

Rubber plant left outside by shed, 2021
Doomed rubber plant awaiting a killing frost.

The plant has a history. It is a clone (via many cuttings and air layering) of one acquired by my mother at least sixty years ago, maybe more. Every house she lived in (and my parents moved a lot) had a rubber tree in the living room. Mom liked the leaves, which could grow to two feet long while remaining relatively narrow. Maybe that’s why she put up with the plant’s growth habit in suboptimal conditions–a single stem that eventually threatened to scrape the ceiling, or acquired an ungainly lean. At that point it would be decapitated, and the cut off piece would be rooted to make a new plant. Meanwhile, the original put out a branch at right angles to the stem, which made it look like a gibbet with leaves.

Rubber plants grown in their preferred conditions look much better. (Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.com)

Eventually, Mom got rid of her rubber tree. By that time she lived in a small apartment and had also acquired a fiddle-leaf fig (Ficus lyrata), which she liked better than the rubber plant. It certainly looked better. But by then I also had a clone of the rubber plant. It wasn’t welcome in our living room, which at the time hosted two big weeping figs (Ficus benjamina), so it was relegated to what became my writing room in the basement. It’s a low-ceilinged room, and while it’s south-facing, there really isn’t enough sun for the rubber plant. So said plant ended up looking like a gibbet for gnomes. Mind you, it was present while I wrote my first novel and several others.

My mother died in October of 2018. Although I was tired of the rubber plant, which was not doing well, I felt obliged to keep it going in her memory. By this summer, the plant really was a thing of ugly. I decided that rather than watch its slow decline, I would put it outside and let the first frost kill it decisively.

Of course, with more light and lots of summer heat, the rubber plant grew new leaves, which reminded me why my mom liked the plant in the first place. But its proportions haven’t improved; if anything, the extra foliage has made it even more of a hulking mess. It wouldn’t be easy to find a spot for it in its old quarters, and it would likely go into a decline again over the winter. So it’s now on Death Row.

As a gardener, I feel a certain amount of guilt about this. If the rubber plant were a cat or dog that just happened to look old and scruffy, I wouldn’t be planning its demise, would I? On the other hand, gardeners rip out and kill healthy weeds without compunction. Maybe it’s because this is a house plant, and of course there’s that connection with my mother.

I thought about propagating a new plant. Unlike animals, plants are sort of immortal in that new clones can be created through cuttings or tissue cultures. The best way to make a new rubber plant is a technique called air layering. You cut partway through a branch and wrap the cut area with sphagnum moss, making sure to keep the cut open. Wrap plastic around the moss and stem and keep the moss damp. Roots grow in several weeks, at which point the new plant may be removed and potted up. My current plant was produced this way, and its predecessor dispatched. I blogged about that HERE.

The trouble is that under the same suboptimal growing conditions that produced ugly specimens before, a new rubber plant would be no different. Watching my various rubber plants looking less than beautiful was not a happy experience, so I’ve decided it’s time to bid Ficus elastica a fond farewell.

Back garden August 2021

Summer’s Finale: Rose, Lily, Dahlia

Fall (autumn) is almost here. We have had actual rain in the past week, and more is predicted. I am no longer a slave to the hose and watering can.

Here are some photos from August, which is usually a dismal month in the garden–tired, seedy, and dry. This year, despite the heat dome of June and hardly any rain, the scene was blessed by three plants: the rose “Fragrant Cloud,” happy in its new big pot, two plants of the dahlia “Bishop of Llandaff” (also in pots), and a couple of late-blooming white lilies (grown in half-barrels). That’s the secret: pots (and the gardener with the watering can).

Rose "Fragrant Cloud" August 2021
Rose "Fragrant Cloud" August 2021
Rose "Fragrant Cloud" August 2021
White lily closeup August 2021
White lily and pink African violet indoors August 2021
Dahlia "Bishop of Llandaff" August 2021
Dahlia "Bishop of Llandaff" closeup August 2021
Japanese Painted Fern (Athyrium niponicum) and yellow leaf August 2021
Fall begins. Autumn arrives.
Red and green tomatoes, August 2021

Growing Tomatoes, Part 4

After nurturing the seedlings and young plants, potting out, eluding both early and late blight, and lots of watering, it’s time for the reward–vine-ripened tomatoes.

Green tomatoes, August 2021

Some gardeners adopt a practice I gather is used in commercial greenhouses–removing all or most of the foliage from the tomato plants once they’ve set enough fruit. The thinking is there is no further purpose for the leaves, and some of them may be yellowing, so off they come. I’ve never done this. At this stage I do cut the tops off the plants because there’s no point in encouraging them to bloom and set new fruits that will never amount to much before season’s end. I may clip off leaves that are shading fruit clusters, but that’s about it. And I reduce watering to every other day instead of daily. More about the foliage removal issue may be found HERE.

Red, orange, and green tomatoes, August 2021

Then it’s just a matter of harvesting the tomatoes as they ripen. If cold and rain arrive while there are still green tomatoes, I pick them all and ripen them in the house. I wash the green tomatoes in soapy water, rinse and let them dry, and then set them out on trays and keep an eye on them. I’ve had home grown tomatoes as late as Christmas time using this technique.

Red tomatoes, August 2021

If I have enough red tomatoes at once, I make salsa. Here is how I do it: Cut up 4, 6, 8, or however many tomatoes you have for the purpose. I chop them up quite finely because I don’t remove the skins. Put tomatoes in a pot and add one finely chopped nectarine. Simmer on medium heat, uncovered, until the consistency suits you. In the meantime, mince an onion and several garlic cloves, as well as whatever kind of hot pepper you prefer. Including the pepper seeds increases the hotness, so discard them if you prefer a mild salsa. Saute the onion, garlic, and pepper in olive oil until limp but not browned and add to the tomato mixture in the pot. Add a teaspoon or so of salt and simmer until it looks right. If you like cilantro, chop up a handful and add it after removing the salsa from the stove. Allow to cool, and enjoy with whatever type of corn chip you prefer. Keeps well in the fridge (but that’s not usually an issue).

Notes: I prefer a cooked salsa to uncooked. The texture is better and the flavours blend together more thoroughly than if left raw. Adding the nectarine was something I tried on impulse a couple of years ago. It improves the flavour, in my opinion, but it is optional. Finally, I have nothing against cilantro, but don’t usually have any on hand, so it’s optional for me.

Back garden end of June 2021

Strange and Wonderful

We’re roasting through another heat wave on the west coast. Here are sights from the garden in July and so far in August. First the strange…

Rose "Fragrant Cloud" bloom bleached by sun during June 2021 heat wave
Flower of rose “Fragrant Cloud” bleached by the late June heat wave.
This is “Fragrant Cloud’s” normal colour
Battarrea phalloides mushroom with trowel for size comparison July 2021
The weird dryland mushroom Battarrea phalloides is back again this summer. (The trowel is there as a size comparison. It’s about 8 in. or 20 cm.)
Borage flowers from above July 2021
Borage flowers viewed from above. Sort of an art nouveau effect, I think.
Windblown cloud or maybe contrail July 2021
A wind-sculpted cirrus cloud (or maybe a contrail.)

And now the wonderful…

Borage flowers July 2021
Borage flowers
White Lychnis coronaria and Beach Pea (Lathyrus japonicus) June 2021
White Lychnis coronaria and beach pea (Lathyrus japonicus). Two quasi-weeds having a moment.
Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum) and orange daylily
This Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum) has outdone itself again this summer.
Heuchera "Timeless Orange" with leaves coloured cream, yellow, orange, and red
Heuchera “Timeless Orange” showing leaf colours other than orange.
Pink oriental lily from mixed batch August 2021
Another lily from the impulse buy mixed bag of bulbs.
Dahlia "Bishop of Llandaff" August 2021
Dahlia “Bishop of Llandaff.” The flowers glow wonderfully just about sunset, but the camera doesn’t pick that up as well as I’d like.
Pink dahlia flowers August 2021
The Nameless Dahlia in fine form.

That’s it for now. Tomatoes are ripening; with luck they won’t roast on the vine.

Pink hydrangea in foreground, blue in background July 2021

Nature and Nurture: the Colours of Hydrangea

These are blooms of Hydrangea macrophylla normalis, otherwise known as lacecap hydrangea.

Blue lacecap hydrangea July 2021
Pink lacecap hydrangea, grown from cutting in pot July 2021

The pink one is a clone of the blue one, grown from a cutting. The difference is that the plant with blue flowers is growing in the natural soil in my garden (supplemented with compost, fertilizer, and lots of water), while the pink one lives in a pot. The soil in the pot is a blend of natural soil, compost, various supplements, and lime. It may have been left over from the mix I put together for tomato plants the year I potted up the hydrangea cutting. The key difference is lime. I add extra lime to tomato soil to avoid so-called blossom end rot in the tomatoes. It’s caused by calcium deficiency, hence the need for lime.

According to Wikipedia, “An acidic soil (pH below 7) will usually produce flower color closer to blue, whereas an alkaline soil (pH above 7) will produce flowers more pink. This is caused by a color change of the flower pigments in the presence of aluminum ions which can be taken up into hyperaccumulating plants.”

Blue lacecap hydrangea July 2021
Pink lacecap hydrangea July 2021

Either way, hydrangeas perk up the garden, which starts to look tired by July. The flowers last for weeks, and even retain “interest” into the winter (meaning they hang on in a discoloured state, which may be somewhat interesting). I admit I prefer the blue colour, which is why I go out of my way to supply water to the plant starting in June, because it would bloom poorly or not at all otherwise. But seeing the pink flowers on the potted cutting-grown plant (which bloomed for the first time this year) has been a nice demonstration of nature and nurture.

Lily "Golden Splendour" July 2021

Lovely Lilies

Lily season is drawing to a close here. When “Golden Splendour” bloomed several weeks ago, I decided there was no point in taking photos again, because I already have many from previous years. But I couldn’t resist.

Lily "Golden Splendour" July 2021
Lily "Golden Splendour" July 2021
Lily "Golden Splendour" July 2021
Lily "Golden Splendour" July 2021
"Golden Splendour" lily front garden with mulleins in background July 2021

On impulse, I bought a bag of unnamed mixed lily bulbs in spring. Here is one of them.

Pale yellow lily with dark brown stamens July 2021

I only wish it were possible to include the fragrance of these lilies in the post!