White daffodil with pale yellow middle near pond

Plant Material

Now that spring is imminent, perennials are poking their noses above the ground, telling gardeners that they are alive and ready for another growing season. Gardeners hover anxiously over spots where particularly fussy or cold-intolerant specimens were last seen, hoping for a sign of life.

003I’ve been hovering over my blue poppies. Late last summer, I transplanted them to what I thought were deluxe accommodations in half-barrels. Excellent soil, no tree roots, and a pea gravel mulch intended to prevent crown rot. Custom made roofs on legs to keep away winter rain. No efforts were spared. The plants settled in nicely and made new growth before they went dormant for winter. So far this spring, things don’t look good. I’m beginning to think the pea gravel was a mistake; it probably kept the top layer of soil moist enough for the dreaded crown rot to do its thing. If all seven plants are dead, I’ll have to acquire new ones and try again.

The white and yellow daffodil in the featured image has bloomed faithfully each spring since the mid 1990s. At first there was only one flower; a few years later, there were two, and the past two or three springs, it’s produced three flowers. So what? Daffodils are planted out by the thousands in parks and even in some private gardens. But this one plant is easily identifiable, and so regular, that I have come to recognize it as an individual.

This picture — of a gardener fussing over a few plants, or even a single one — is completely removed from the way plants are sold and handled on a commercial scale. We’ve all seen hundreds of potted plants for sale, not at nurseries or even garden centres, but at grocery stores, hardware stores, and discount consumer outlets. No one fusses over these units produced by mass propagation. They’re given minimal attention by busy staff, wheeled in and out of display areas daily, get knocked over by windstorms, and finally start to look a bit stressed. Plants that don’t sell by the end of July are put on deep discount and finally trashed. At least they’re compostable.

Then there are instant gardens installed by landscape contractors driving trucks with graphically designed logos on the doors. In a week, the job is done. A multitude of perennials and shrubs has been plugged into the ground in pleasing patterns. The operation has more in common with laying carpets or interlocking bricks than with my kind of gardening. Freshly finished, such gardens look lovely and (on a bad day) make me think mine — the result of a quarter century of earnest digging, planting, watering, and anxious hovering — looks pathetic by comparison. Of course, if not maintained by someone who knows what they’re doing, those installed gardens go downhill pretty fast. I’ve seen it happen.

Those who do large scale garden work seem to have a utilitarian or even disrespectful attitude toward plants. Often, it starts with razing and removal of every growing thing on a city lot — and of the original house too — followed by digging a great big hole, maybe a bit of blasting. A huge house is erected and landscaping installed by a contractor. Another contractor provides an irrigation system, probably programmed and controlled with a smartphone app. A truck pulls up once a week, disgorging fast-moving people wielding power tools who buzz through the place, mowing, trimming, fluffing up the soil and adding mulch. As long as the bills are paid, the place looks fine. In such gardens, you don’t see any shabbily-dressed figures (i.e., resident gardeners) drifting around, peering at plants and scuffling inefficiently, making repeated trips to the shed for yet another tool, a couple more stakes, or a ball of twine.

I want to say that the instant garden isn’t really  a garden, and those yard maintenance folks aren’t gardeners. I suspect this idea may be tainted with irrational sentimentality, but I’m clinging to it anyway. To me a garden is a patch of earth sweated over by someone who knows almost every plant that grows from it, who rejoices when those first shoots appear in spring and mourns when they don’t.

I suppose what I’m really talking about is analogous to the difference between the backyard chicken flock where every hen has a name, and the industrial poultry system. The small, personal garden and the installed landscape are really two different (if related) things. Each has a place, but in me they evoke opposite reactions.

 

 

 

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Miniature daffodil, variety unknown.

Garden Restart: Mixing, Mulching, and Moving

Transitioning from the somnolence of winter to the sometimes frantic activities of spring in the garden can be painful. For a few weeks, I kept finding reasons to stay inside, hunched over my electronic devices. Too cold, too windy; oh hey, now it’s raining! I’m staying in.

Feeding mulch ingredients in wheelbarrow with spade near compost heap. Alfalfa pellets, soy meal, lime, steer manure, compost.

Compost, steer manure, and alfalfa pellets under soy meal and lime, waiting to be mixed up.

Two weeks ago, I shook off the excuses, made a Things To Do In The Garden list, and got going. I visited my local feed, seed, and garden supplies store and bought a bunch of stuff. I cut down old plant stalks, removed some plants entirely, and moved others to better spots. Having been somewhat negligent about soil improvement the last few years, I scattered 6-8-6 fertilizer around. Then I wheeled out the wheelbarrow, grabbed a spade, and mixed up some feeding mulch.

Feeding mulch and trowel.

Feeding mulch ready to use.

Feeding mulch, otherwise known as “top dressing,” is something I discovered in Further Along the Garden Path, a book by Pacific Northwest gardener and writer Ann Lovejoy. You mix up a bunch of mostly organic plant nutrient materials and apply them to your beds and borders. The basic ones are alfalfa pellets, aged manure, and compost. Extras include dolomite lime, bone meal, kelp meal, and soy meal.

The compost I made last year turned out exceptionally well — nicely rotted down, black and crumbly. To half a wheelbarrow of this, I added half a bag of steer manure, an ice cream pail of alfalfa pellets, another of soy meal, and half a small coffee can of lime. This year I didn’t have bone or kelp meal, but I’m hoping it won’t matter.

Feeding mulch in wheelbarrow with spade and trowel.Mixing up the stuff is sort of like combining the dry ingredients for muffins, on a grand scale. I use a spade, turning the mixture into the centre, rearranging and turning again until it looks uniform. Then I deposit about 2 cm (1 inch) uniformly over the soil of each bed. The idea is to sprinkle it evenly, avoiding damage to plants. Sometimes I have to flap a hand gently through foliage to shake the stuff down. Five wheelbarrow loads pretty much did the trick. I’m self-congratulating that I managed to get this task done early this year, before most plants have made much growth. There’s nothing like damaging delicate new growth by dumping mulch on it. Oh, the irony.

Another must-do-it-now thing is pruning, largely because of “Compost Day,” which is the one day per year when the municipality picks up fallen and pruned branches, twigs and other garden debris. This year it’s March 20th on my street, so any ambitious pruning has to be done before then. I already have the usual huge brush pile, but will add to it once I psych myself up, don a suit of armour (actually an old yellow rain jacket), and cut out the deadwood from a massive old climbing rose that’s grown into a maple tree and neighbouring hollies. Yes, rose thorns and holly prickles. Oh joy.

I’ve already pruned the magnolia, the photinia and another climbing rose, a plant of “New Dawn” that graces a rather shaky pergola in the back garden. And I’ve lived to write about it, despite racing up and down ladders and wrestling thorny rose canes. Not to mention dealing with the terrible finality of pruning — once you cut something, you can’t put it back. My rule: if in doubt, cut less rather than more.

Toadflax (Linaria purpurea) foliage turning colour in fall.

Linaria purpurea plant last fall, now dispatched (by me).

Speaking of terrible finalities, I actually made myself yank out three magnificent specimens of toadflax, Linaria purpurea, one of my favourite near-weeds. They looked great all last summer and into fall, when the foliage turned an interesting pinkish shade. They were all set to do it again this year, but alas, they had planted themselves in a spot I’d never intended for them, where they threatened to hulk over a couple of groundcovers. So, out they came. I hate killing healthy plants, even if there are way too many of them; part of me still regrets the deed.

Surviving purple crocus, dead fern foliage.

Crocuses protected by dead fern foliage.

On the plus side, quite a few crocuses have survived this winter’s massacre, although some of the survivors have been nibbled by deer. At least deer nibbling doesn’t kill the plant outright. Having their corms dug up and eaten by some pesky rodent does. Crocuses growing under other plants have been overlooked by both diggers and deer.

OK, I’ve checked off a whole bunch of items on my TTD list, and I’ve re-engaged with the garden. The weather is improving (but let’s hope the rain doesn’t stop altogether; we need those April showers). These days, I’m finding reasons to stay outside rather than in.

Corsican hellebore and variegated vinca, green and yellow with pale purple flowers

Corsican hellebore and variegated periwinkle with swollen alfalfa pellets visible in the feeding mulch.

 

Reviews, Interview, and RAEW

The Friendship of Mortals is getting some good attention! Berthold Gambrel wrote an insightful review on his blog, as well as one on Amazon, followed by an interview in which I answer his questions about aspects of the novel. In both, he explores the relationship between my novel and the H.P. Lovecraft story on which it’s based, namely “Herbert West, Reanimator.”

raew 2018 - 2The Friendship of Mortals is widely available in various ebook formats, and in print. The other three books in the Herbert West Series will be discounted during Smashwords’ Read an Ebook Week sale, March 4th to 10th. Info and links here.

The Mystery of the Missing Mask

Another Almost Local Book Review: The Mystery of the Missing Mask by M.A. Wilson

Publisher’s description:

Ryan and Kendra have returned to Maple Harbour on the British Columbia coast to visit their cousins Claire and Nathan. But the sleepy little town has been rocked by the news that a valuable Indigenous mask has been stolen, only days after it arrived at the local museum! While museum officials and the police search for answers, the four children and their new friend Tyler stumble upon a series of exciting clues. As they enjoy their summer holidays, not everything is what it seems.

This is the second adventure story for children set in the coastal community of Maple Harbour. Brother and sister Ryan and Kendra arrive for another summer vacation with their cousins, Nathan and Claire.

The action begins at the local museum, which has acquired a unique piece of Native art – a grizzly bear mask. The kids attend a ceremony featuring the mask. That very night, the mask is stolen.

The theft recedes into the background while the children plunge into summer activities – sailing, swimming, and building a tree house from salvaged lumber. Their activities are punctuated by wonderful meals provided by Aunt Jennie. A windstorm damages Uncle William’s truck. The kids make a new friend, Tyler, who has a canoe and shows them how to harvest oysters and clams.

Subtle clues to the mask theft are scattered through the plot, and converge in a satisfying way in the last few chapters. A nighttime investigation and exciting pursuit form the climax of the story.

This is a good, solid adventure tale, which would entertain kids from 7 to 12 or so. The characters are fairly distinct in terms of maturity, interests and abilities. Information about the environment and how to do things is presented in an engaging way. A subplot featuring the mischievous Mitchell twins and Claire’s dilemma about a lucky find on the beach is a lesson about doing the right thing. Figuring out who stole the grizzly bear mask by picking up on the trail of clues would be a satisfying reader experience. The final action scenes involve a series of exciting twists and jolts, with a role for everyone and a positive resolution.

I enjoyed the wealth of detail provided by the author, giving readers a complete experience of summer activities enjoyed to the full by a group of kids who are able to figure things out and make decisions. The detailed and attractive illustrations are a good addition to the story.

A review copy of the book was provided by the author.

Purple crocuses

The Old Garden and the Old Gardener

I’ve been gardening the same patch of land for a quarter century. You would think that means perfection has been achieved.

You would be wrong.

An old garden full of trees, shrubs, perennials, bulbs, and self-seeding annuals, gardened by someone not good at ruthless removal, becomes a mess. New gardeners, take note! Sometimes you have to remove (i.e., kill) perfectly healthy, beautiful plants because they’re in the wrong place, or there are too many of them, or they’re weeds. If you relent and let them be, your garden will become a mess.

Define “mess.”

In my garden, it means a jumble of plants above ground and an entanglement of roots, rhizomes, corms, and bulbs beneath the surface. Any garden project, however simple and straightforward its intention, rapidly becomes complicated and tricky.

purple hellebore flowers

Oriental hellebore

For example, the other day I decided to cut down the old foliage of some oriental hellebores, to better display the emerging flowers, and in anticipation of distributing compost and fertilizer in the next few weeks. This is best done while the ground is relatively bare, meaning after old stuff has been removed and before new growth has covered the ground. And, of course, after any unwanted plants (sometimes called “weeds”) have been removed.

Simple, right? Except that in this garden the line between weed and non-weed has always been kind of fuzzy.

Arum italicum foliage

Italian arum foliage

So, back to the hellebores. Snipping the old stems close to the ground was easy, but while doing that I noticed that a nearby patch of Italian arum was encroaching on some emerging irises and the still dormant buds of a peony. I had been careless about cutting down the arum’s seed stalks (because they’re so ornamental, like little red corn cobs on sticks) and they had sprouted new plants around the original one, as well as spreading underground. I got the hori-hori knife and went to work.

June 11, 2016

Hori-hori knife and its sheath.

The young arums were easy enough to dig up and remove, but the mature arums’ bulbous roots are quite deep underground. Try digging them up without harming the irises and peonies. Too often, I heard that awful crisp snap of plant tissues breaking. Several arum roots remained below ground, and at least one iris was prematurely dispatched. At the end of the session, instead of a neatly weeded patch of ground, the area resembled a battlefield, complete with casualties.

The whole place is like this! Regular garden plants rub roots with the tough specimens I brought in because they were recommended for situations like mine — sandy soil, shade, tree roots, and increasingly dry summers. Any kind of adjustment that involves digging almost always becomes a blood and guts situation — well, okay, a battle with roots, with some unoffending plant as collateral damage.

Another annoyance this year is the crocus massacre. Over the years, crocuses, mostly purple ones, have multiplied and spread through the garden, sometimes by accident, sometimes intentionally. But now I’ve found many holes several inches deep, surrounded by broken crocus shoots, many with buds showing. The bulbs — or more accurately, corms — have been eaten. Rats, which have become distressingly numerous in this superlative suburb in recent years, are my number one suspect. I know squirrels are reputed to eat crocuses, but there have always been squirrels here, and I’ve never observed them digging up crocuses. They’re more interested in picking up sunflower seeds dropped from the bird feeder, and unlike rats, they’re diurnal. So I’ve resorted to covering the remaining crocuses with chicken wire, which is ugly and not kind to plant tissues, but may preserve them.

That’s the thing about gardening, though. Unlike many hobbies or avocations, it involves so many factors beyond the control of the person who undertakes it. Weather, soil, birds, rats, insects, and the gardener’s state of health (both physical and mental) — all these things influence what happens in a garden, but none of them is entirely under the gardener’s control.

Picking up the spade and the trowel, and committing oneself to turning a patch of land into a garden, is a momentous undertaking. Once you’ve created the garden, you must do whatever it takes to maintain it, even if that means struggles of various kinds. Frost? Cover or move those tender plants. Drought? Hoist the watering can and wrestle with the hose. Crowding and imbalance? Clip back, cut down, or dig up. Weeds? Pull and dig. And curse and pull and dig some more. Ravenous rodents? Lay out chicken wire. And so on.

Gardening is a lifelong negotiation with the forces of the natural world. Few things are more real and raw. And despite everything, worthwhile.

Crocuses and chicken wire to prevent rats from digging them up

Chicken wire may protect these crocuses from being dug up by rats.

Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – Open House Interview with author Audrey Driscoll

I had the chance to participate in Sally Cronin’s Open House today. She provided some interesting questions, and hopefully my answers are interesting as well.

Smorgasbord - Variety is the spice of life

My guest today on the Open House is supernatural/paranormal author of The Herbert West Series, Audrey Driscoll.

About Audrey Driscoll

I grew up reading books, and became interested in making stories myself. I worked out scenes and bits of dialogue, and made my friends act out little dramas based on my favourite book at the time – Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book.

With that background, it was inevitable I would become a writer. It just took a while. After establishing a career as a librarian – first at the University of Saskatchewan and then at the Greater Victoria Public Library in British Columbia – I had a meaningful encounter with H.P. Lovecraft’s character Herbert West.

Strangely fascinated by HPL’s corpse-reanimating physician and his friend the nameless narrator, I built a set of stories around them. In 2000, I was compelled to write them down. The result was The Friendship of Mortals…

View original post 2,202 more words

Sharing Winter Iris

A while ago, I received a request for permission to use one of my garden photos — the one of Iris unguicularis you see above. That was perfectly fine with me. I said “Go ahead,” and thought no more of it.

A few days ago, I received an email from the writer of the Regarding Gardening blog, with a link to an informative and interesting post about this winter-blooming iris species, also known as the Algerian iris. My photo of the plant is featured at the top of the post, which is also studded with links to other worthwhile resources. One I intend to look up is E.A. Bowles’s book My Garden in Autumn and Winter. It’s described as a masterpiece, but somehow it has eluded my notice, even though published more than a hundred years ago.

Aside from feeling chuffed that someone found one of my photos useful, I thought the post, and indeed the blog itself, is worth a visit.

Ironically, that very same iris plant is completely bloomless so far this winter, even though it looks perfectly healthy, with lots of new growth starting. I hope its fame hasn’t turned it into a prima donna.

manuscript and notebook She Who Comes Forth work in progress

Finished!

Today — Thursday, January 25th, 2018 — I typed the final sentence of my work in progress, followed by finis. Why finis instead of THE END? No reason, except that’s how I’ve envisioned it for the last few months. (Besides, finis is cool).

Well, okay, it’s only the first draft. And it’s still steaming. I’ll leave it to cool and solidify, and then start poking around, cutting out bits from here, adding some stuff there, reworking and massaging — in other words, editing.

But right now, I’m relishing the state of completion. I started writing this novel a year ago, picking it up after a false start and a couple years of dormancy. Now it’s complete, even if rough. No more worrying about cranking out the next section, and the one after that. No more visualizing action scenes, contriving conversations, and wondering how long it would take to get from A to B. And no more fictitious meals to put together.

Facts and figures

Title (provisional): She Who Comes Forth.

Word count:  104,816, but that includes notes to self like [CHECK THIS!] and [LUMPY! REWORK!]. So this number is subject to change.

Genre: Uncertain. Maybe “Women’s adventure fiction.” Is that a genre? With a coming-of-age element, and the necessary injection of the supernatural. This is, after all, a spinoff from the Herbert West Series.

Setting: Luxor, Egypt and the Theban Necropolis on the west bank of the Nile.

Time period: Autumn, 1962.

Publication date: Uncertain. Late 2018 or early 2019, depending on how editing goes, and other factors.

Things to do immediately: save to flash drive, external hard drive, and the cloud. Email a copy to self. I don’t want to lose the document to some sort of computer ailment. I’d still have the handwritten manuscript (pictured above), but it’s only the proto-draft. The real first draft is a lot better quite different.

hot air balloons over Luxor Egypt

Image from Pixabay

 

The Willful Character And The Act of Writing

 

I read comments by writers all the time saying their characters take over and start driving the plot of the story. With my current work in progress, I’ve become quite the plotter, making detailed outlines for each section of the work before I start writing. So imagine my surprise when the pen in my hand started writing a scene that was definitely not in the outline! What’s more, it was an unplanned sex scene.

Once it was written, I had to admit that scene actually worked, but the whole thing got me thinking about the willful character. Maybe it’s a form of “automatic writing,” not in the supernatural sense, but the result of tapping into subconscious impulses while in a state of receptiveness induced by the act of writing. (Hey, that’s not bad, considering I made it up on the spot).

The best fictional characters are like real people, complete with flaws, quirks and contradictory impulses. Some writers develop their characters before they actually start writing the novel. Physical features, musical and food preferences, hobbies, education — a complete curriculum vitae. I’m not that kind of writer. I have a hazy vision of my primary characters, that becomes clearer as I write. There seems to be a department in my brain called Character Development, that trots out details about each major character when needed. Sometimes it throws me a surprise.

One of the best parts of the writing process is when this automatic thing kicks in and the words pour out effortlessly. Sometimes it feels as though I’m just copying stuff dictated to me by a disembodied brain. It’s probably my brain. Or some kind of collective unconscious, a well of ideas available to all who yield themselves to the writing urge. That’s where our characters come from, finding their way in response to tentative images in our writing brains.

Characters manifest their characteristics, prompting a kind of negotiation with the author. “Okay, that’s fine — you can do this, but not that. And definitely not the other thing.” But cut them some slack. Willful characters aren’t a problem, but a sign that the writer’s imagination is engaged beyond the scope of the outline, tapping into a realm of mystery. And that’s good.

Sitting down to write, giving yourself up to whatever you are creating, is like going down an unexplored trail. You just don’t know what you might meet around the corner, even if you have a map. Whether you outline your plot in detail before you start, or write by the seat of your pants, you must be prepared for the unexpected.

SWCF manuscript and notesThe first stage of creating a work of fiction — the first draft — isn’t the place to worry about rules, or getting every detail right. At this stage, the writer’s imagination needs to be cranking out stuff, producing raw material to be refined later. That’s why I still write my first drafts — or maybe they’re better called “proto-drafts” — in longhand. Actually, “longhand” seems too fancy a term for my cursive scribble on the borderline of legibility.

The thing is, at this stage you don’t want to read over what you’ve written and polish it. You want to forge ahead, beating out the rough shape of your story, bumps, holes and all. Don’t look back! For me, stark black words on the bright white screen are just too intimidating. I really doubt I would have written that sudden sex scene if I’d been using my laptop. But I scribbled it down, and when I typed it up a few days later, the critical, analytical part of my brain said, “Well, okaaay, I guess it works.”

As for my work in progress — the first draft is almost done! Another 5,000 words or so, and I can write Finis.

And then, of course, I go back to the beginning. The crazy, creative part of my brain will take a back seat, and the critical, analytical part will get to to do its thing.

Featured image courtesy of Pixabay.