Garden

January 2023 New Year sunrise

Winter Sunrise and Winter Jasmine

Are winter sunrises more dramatic than those of summer, or is it that we notice them because they happen later, when most of us are awake and up to see them?

Winter sunrise January 2023
This pink sunrise happened on January 2nd, 2023.
Waning moon and rising sun January 19, 2023
On January 19th, 2023, the final crescent of the old moon rose shortly before the sun. If you look hard, you can see the tiny sliver of moon just to the right of the bottom of the tree trunk. (Or maybe you can’t, in which case my apologies for the poor quality of the photo.)
Winter jasmine January 2023
Maybe because of the drought last September and October, or the cold weather in November and December, the winter jasmine bloomed late, but it’s beautiful right now.

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Preparing to Amputate

Have you ever noticed a suburban garden in which the house is pretty much hidden behind overgrown shrubs, hulking trees, or an out-of-control hedge? Have you wondered who lives there, and why they’ve allowed all this overgrowth? Maybe they’re no longer capable of trimming and pruning. Maybe they’re reclusive weirdos. Maybe they just like living in a small private jungle.

I find such scenes a bit depressing. Which is why I don’t want my place to look like that. Nor would I want the post office to cut off service because the letter carrier doesn’t want to bushwhack their way to the door. Neither would first responders in case of emergency.

All right, things aren’t nearly that bad here right now, but some shrubs in this garden do need serious pruning. Editing, you might say.

  • Magnolia. Needs a major limb removed that is shading part of a perennial bed.
  • Ceanothus. Needs a major limb removed that is crowding the front walk.
  • Rosa glauca near front walk. The three or four oldest stems must be removed because they lean into the walk opposite the impinging Ceanothus, thus narrowing said walk unacceptably.
  • Cotoneaster franchetti. Needs to be lowered and reduced in bulk. Don’t want to cut it down altogether because it’s a big berry producer for birds in winter.
  • Photinia in front garden. Needs its annual trim to maintain the desired ice cream cone shape.
  • Small holly in back garden. There are too many hollies here already. Best to remove this one before it turns into a monster. Update: this one is DONE. Except it was two hollies that were a lot taller than I thought. Now cut down.
  • Big hollies in back garden. Already monsters that need to be beaten back.
  • Apple tree. Too tall and too wide. I seem to recall it was a “dwarf” when I planted it.
  • Smoke bush. Also too tall and too wide. This one can be cut down drastically, whereupon it will regrow with appalling vigor. I did that several years ago, but you’d never know it now. Some judicious trimming may be better.
  • The rampant shrub rose that has climbed into two maple trees and a couple of hollies on the west side of the back garden. It needs to be reminded that there are limits to growth, despite its cascade of fragrant white flowers in June.
Three-legged ladder and Photinia

I’ve already admitted I’m a reluctant pruner. Cutting off a limb, whether of an animal or a plant, is final. You can’t glue it back on. Mistakes aren’t easily fixable. And I get depressed at the sight of a perfectly good, nicely branched limb lying on the ground. Even when I know it had to be removed.

So I need to get into the right frame of mind, now that pruning season is about to start. January through March is the best time. Plants are dormant, it’s not too warm for the physical exertion needed, and I don’t have to worry about trampling smaller plants underfoot. And in March there’s the one day per year when the municipality picks up the trimmed-off material.

I have the right tools: two pruning saws, sharp secateurs, long handled loppers. A really good tripod ladder. Even a chain saw (for the magnolia job) and someone (i.e., the Spouse) to operate it. The subjects, (i.e., shrubs) are nicely anesthetized by winter dormancy, so will never know what happened. At least, I hope not.

Silky Gomtaro Root Saw

So go forth and prune, gardener! Seize the saw, climb the ladder, and cut! Amputate those darlings!

Yellow foliage of Rugosa rose with red leaves of ornamental cherry in background

Leaves and Berries

Around here, leaf-drop happens in November, often along with wind and rain. Southeast winds blow as rainstorms arrive and stiff westerlies as they leave. Northeast winds bring cold air from the British Columbia interior. All these winds mean the leaves from the several trees (maples, ailanthus, and birch) that surround my garden are distributed throughout the neighbourhood. But there are always enough of them to swell the compost pile.

This fall was relatively windless, so the leaves fell close to home. The compost pile is overflowing, with the surplus piled up on the side of the driveway for pickup by the municipality.

Huge pile of leaves on compost heap
Leaves piled up for collection, OTBT in backgroun

Last Tuesday, the winds arrived. First from the southeast, and then the west. Result: a mess. Yet another major raking session was needed. I topped up both compost pile and the pile to be collected. While raking, I noticed leaves from parts unknown, i.e., from trees in other parts of the neighbourhood.

On the other hand, autumn leaves can be quite photogenic.

Yellow maple leaf caught in ornamental grass Pennisetum alopecuroides "Little Bunny"
Maple leaf captured by ornamental grass Pennisetum alopecuroides “Little Bunny.”
Red leaves of Bergenia cordifolia
Leaves of Bergenia cordifolia turning red for winter.
Yellowing foliage of irises and asters in front garden November 2022
Iris and aster foliage yellowing in style.
Red/orange berries of Cotoneaster franchetti
Berries of Cotoneaster franchetti. They’ll be gobbled up by birds soon.
Cotoneaster franchetti twigs, leaves, and branches against blue sky
Since the leaf-redistributing windstorm, we’ve had some chilly blue sky days.
Last few leaves on Magnolia branches against blue sky, with hummingbird
The last few leaves clinging to the magnolia. There’s a hummingbird in the middle of the photo, next to the little cloud. It looks like another leaf!

Meteorological winter is here! It certainly feels like it today, with the temperature hovering around the freezing point.

Blue Siberian irises

Six Harsh Truths About Gardening

Another gardening year is drawing to an end. It’s time to evaluate and plan for Next Year (which is always the best year). But right now, the gardener is tired—of lugging watering cans, digging holes, and sawing roots while in a bent-over position. Some plants are overgrown, others are moribund. The gardener is oppressed by all the things that must be done—but not right now, because it’s not the right season.

In this rather glum mood, the gardener ponders some harsh truths.

Harsh Truth Number One. Gardening is not a hobby you can put aside when you get tired of it, or something more exciting comes along. Not in a place where constant attention must be paid to watering. Then there’s weeding, staking, tying, and deadheading. And let’s not forget pruning. Forget about those summer camping trips, unless you’re prepared to deal with a mess when you return.

Harsh Truth Number Two. Unless you confine yourself to growing vegetables, annuals, and herbaceous ornamentals, you will have to learn to prune “woody subjects,” such as shrubs and even trees. And then you’ll actually have to do it. Pruning often means cutting off healthy growth that looks like the best part of the plant, trusting that it will have a beneficial effect in the end. That’s hard to do. And after a pruning session, you have to dispose of all the lovely stuff you’ve cut off.

Harsh Truth Number Three. Plants are going to die, despite your best efforts. The new, exciting perennial that’s being touted by all the experts. The marginally hardy shrub you fuss over and cosset, telling yourself that maybe it’s actually grown a bit this year. And sometimes an old reliable blooms better than it ever has, and then suddenly wilts, never to rise again.

Harsh Truth Number Four. Your garden will never look anything like your vision of it at the planning stage, or like those swoon-worthy photos in horticultural magazines. (Remember, though, that those photos capture moments, not seasons.) And no matter how well a plant does in your garden, you will inevitably see it looking better in someone else’s.

Harsh Truth Number Five. You are responsible for your garden, but you’re not really in control of it. Weather—rain (or lack of it), sun, wind, frost—has the last word. Along with fungi, bugs, raccoons, the roots of nearby trees, and the inner workings of plants themselves. The gardener isn’t the supreme commander, but rather a combination of servant, coach, first aid attendant, cleanup crew, and undertaker.

Harsh Truth Number Six. No matter how much hope, love, and sweat you expend on your garden, there’s no guarantee that it will persist beyond your tenure. Once the gardener has shuffled off to the retirement home or downsized to a condo, the garden will change, or even disappear, along with the house, the trees, and the pavements, to be replaced by some architectural monstrosity and instant landscaping. I’ve seen this happen too often where I live. But then, the present house and garden replaced farmland, which in turn replaced wildlife habitat or land inhabited and harvested by indigenous people.

Harsh truths can be overwhelming. After reading the above, one may ask, “So why garden, if it’s so harsh?”

Every gardener will have their own answer. The satisfaction of growing food. A certain amount of exercise. Being outside and forming a relationship with the natural world. I can relate to all of these, but for me the reward comes when I go out into the garden and experience a moment when colours, textures, the relationship of light with the plants, the smells of flowers and earth and living things combine in a form of perfection. These episodes are brief and cannot be commanded, but they outweigh all the harsh truths. It’s as though my acceptance of them, and doing the necessary work, makes a kind of magic.

Benign light
Gilds the very air,
Makes dust motes into small blessings,
Deepens the hues of leaf and flower.
The gardener stands bemused
At the gateway between day and night,
Clutching secateurs and a handful of spent flowers.
Caught in stillness,
Gazing,
As white flowers become little stars,
And the light fades to blue.
Pond bench, hostas, with Athyrium niponicum var. pictum (Japanese painted fern) in foreground
Back garden perennial beds in June, with Verbascum chaixii, Delphinium, Asiatic lilies, and white campion (Lychnis coronaria "Alba") in bloom
Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var. Pictum) and pond
oscillating garden sprinkler fan shaped spray watering

A Strange Start to Fall

Here on southern Vancouver Island, fall has been cancelled and summer continues.

Our normal temperatures for early October are a low of 8C and a high of 16C (46 to 61F). The past week has seen highs topping out in the low 20s (low 70sF), and this trend is forecast to continue for at least the next week. This after above average warmth in August and September.

And it hasn’t rained since early July.

On the plus side, these dry, windless, not-too-warm days are great for gardening and other outdoor activities. On the minus side is the giant water bill I’m anticipating later in the year, and the continuing drudgery of hauling watering cans and hoses around. Ironically, our routine summer watering restrictions ended on September 30th, which means we can now water whenever it pleases us, for as long as we want (keeping the bill in mind, of course).

pink watering can

More seriously, the long rainless period has adversely affected entire ecosystems. Salmon are dying in dried-up rivers. Forest trees, already stressed by the “heat dome” of June 2021, are struggling. These are quiet disasters, unlike intense and dramatic ones like floods and fires. But the effects are potentially dire. Fewer salmon means fewer killer whales and fewer bears.

Returning to the garden, it is true that with shorter days and cooler nights, plants are preparing for dormancy. It’s not like May, when everything is making new growth and setting buds. Plants don’t need as much water now, but they usually enter dormancy with several good soaking rains. So I’ve kept up my watering program, hoping to send the little green dudes into their off-season in at least a dampish state.

Because of last winter’s copious rain and a cool, wet spring, I didn’t start using my soaker hoses until late July. I expected to stop watering before the end of September. I was wrong. Moreover, I have discovered something about soaker hoses, which I use to irrigate several perennial beds. They’re fine for normal summers, in which the rainless period lasts for two months or less. But when the garden dries out completely, soakers simply don’t have the reach of sprinklers. So even though they’re a less responsible irrigation tool, I’ve been relying on sprinklers for this late-season watering binge.

Old black rubber soaker hose coiled up

Despite the abnormal warmth and dryness, there are the usual signals of the turning year. Heavier dews and occasional foggy mornings. Winter birds—juncos, northern flickers, spotted towhees and others—are back, bopping around the garden and foraging. Hardy cyclamen are in bloom.

Hardy cyclamen blooms with ferns and fallen leaves

But tomatoes are still ripening on the vine.

"Roma" tomatoes ripening on the vine

And asters are in full, glorious bloom.

Light purple asters and geranium "Ann Folkard" in back garden

So is this dahlia.

Pink dahlia in full bloom October 2022
Pink dahlia cut flower on dining nook table

There is a lot to be grateful for on this Canadian Thanksgiving weekend.

Featured image from Pixabay; other photos by the author.

Plants in Dining Nook: Hoya, Swedish Ivy, small Tradescantia, and Amaryllis

Hello Hoya!

More than 30 years ago, I was given a Hoya plant. Hoya carnosa is the botanical name; it’s also known as porcelain flower or wax plant. These names were likely suggested by the flowers. They do look as though made from porcelain, and have a waxy appearance.

My plants (I have two, both clones of the original) are variegated. Their leaves are mainly green, but with white margins or streaks. An occasional leaf is pure white, and new ones often have pink shadings as well. Until recently, I had never seen a bloom. I assumed something about the situations I gave the plants was not conducive to producing blooms, and simply admired their leaves.

To be honest, the hoyas are awkward plants. They produce incredibly long stems which should have something to twine around. Or they ought to be grown as hanging plants. One of mine sits on a windowsill with its stems taped to the window frame with green painter’s tape. The other one is on top of a filing cabinet. One stem is tied to a bamboo stake, the other is attached to the top of a window frame with (you guessed it) more painter’s tape.

Several weeks ago, I noticed an odd thing on one of the stems. It looked alarmingly like a spider, but on closer inspection turned out to be a cluster of flower buds. Great rejoicing followed on my part, plus daily inspections and more tape applied, to make sure the bud-bearing stem was well supported.

Hoya flower cluster, unopened
This was a couple of weeks after I first noticed the buds. They had grown considerably. Notice what might be another bud near the lowest piece of tape.
Hoya flower cluster, unopened
You can see why it’s called wax plant.

Eventually, the flowers opened, all at once.

Hoya flower cluster

You can see why it’s called porcelain flower. They stayed in good shape for two or three weeks, then suddenly turned brown and dried up, again all at once. Hoyas are said to have a strong scent, and indeed another plant (not variegated) owned by the person who gave me mine had a spicy scent. I couldn’t detect any smell from my plant’s flowers, however, except maybe a faint chocolate aroma. (I was still recovering from covid at the time, though.)

I’ve noticed two tiny proto-buds on this plant. I tell myself they’re getting bigger, so maybe there will be more blooms from this hitherto reluctant bloomer.

Red, orange, and green tomatoes, August 2021

Wednesday Weirdness: Tomato Face

Tomato with blossom end rot that looks like a face
One of the first red tomatoes this year. It has a touch of Blossom End Rot, with a somewhat creepy effect.

The problem is said to be caused by a calcium deficiency and/or insufficient watering. I added lime to the soil for the tomatoes and have been watering assiduously, so the rest of them are mostly okay.

Pink dahlia and blue Globe Thistle (Echinops ritro)

Summer’s End

It’s over…

Yes, I know summer doesn’t officially end for another 2.5 weeks. But according to the meteorological reckoning of seasons, as opposed to the astronomical one, summer ended with the month of August.

I am happy to kiss it goodbye. Summer had a late start here, but once it got going, it delivered a moderate heat wave almost every week. Nights were relatively warm too, so cooling the house (no a/c here!) was a bit of a project. It worked like this: first thing in the morning, open every window and door and get fans going to pull in the cool air of dawn. Once the outside temp starts to climb, shut all those windows and doors as well as curtains and blinds. This would keep the house at least 5 (Fahrenheit) degrees cooler than the peak outdoor temp. As soon as the outdoor temp dropped below the indoor one (usually by 7 or 8 p.m.), we opened everything up and got fans going again. Tedious, but fairly effective.

Now, I recognize that temperatures in the low to mid 80s (degrees F) are not considered super hot by many, but our “normal” maximum high temperature is 22C (72F). And most of us lack air conditioning. Hence the whining. And while I’m doing that, I’ll just add that there has been no rain at all since early July, so I’ve been best friends with watering cans, hoses, and sprinklers.

Blue Lacecap Hydrangea August 2022
This hydrangea now has its own soaker hose, so performed beautifully this summer.
Blue Lacecap Hydrangea August 2022

The Scarlet Bishop

Red Dahlia "Bishop of Llandaff"
Dahlia “Bishop of Llandaff”

One of my two dahlias (the other is the pink one in the featured image at the top of the post) is this scarlet variety called “Bishop of Llandaff.” It’s named after an actual person, and has been cultivated in gardens since 1924. The contrast between the bright flowers and the dark foliage adds to its appeal.

I have several plants. Three are planted in the ground, and have survived the winters. The ones in pots winter in the basement. They grow much better than the ones in the ground; this year the tallest branches exceeded 5 feet (pot included).

Red Dahlia "Bishop of Llandaff" closeup
Red Dahlia "Bishop of Llandaff" closeup with bee
Bees like the Bishop too!

I know there will likely be more warm days, but the sun sets earlier and rises later. The fog bank in the Strait of Juan de Fuca is swelling and drifts onto the land at times. Autumn is on the doorstep, and I’m ready to welcome it.