Wednesday, June 27, 2007

NASA Gardening in my Kitchen

I'm all for children getting an appreciation for gardening and nature, but hang this really nature or is it "The Jetson's Gardening Kit". I first saw an ad for the "Aerogarden" on the back of a gardening magazine I picked up at the local grocery store. I wasn't too interested, considering that the entire catalog was irrelevant to northern gardening sensibilities.
Now I see a website ( recommending these $150 US units to teach your child about indoor gardening:

"It is basically a self-contained unit with a computer that is automatic - it lets you know when the plants need water or nutrients - and the plants grow in the water, not dirt. When you lift the flap in the front, the roots are clearly visible. Plus there are no bugs! That’s the part I like. And of course, no dirt (that was worth mentioning twice). There’s even an automatic light so you never have to worry if the plants are getting enough sunlight. You really just have to stay on top of when the water level gets low (ours gets pretty thirsty), but there’s a red light that comes on to notify you. No more finger in the ol’ pot trick.

The system has an area on top that allows you to put seed pods in. The seed kits are sold separately and they run about 20 dollars a pop. Each seed kit contains 7 pods and they are sold in different categories or bundles such as italian herbs, petunias, strawberries, etc... "

I suppose this would be good if you were well-off and had to live in an urban apartment with no patio and strict rules banning dirt...or in a SPACESHUTTLE (as advertised on the Aerogarden website) but otherwise:

(1) Recent medical research finds that kids have TOO LITTLE dirt in their lives, leading to things like asthma and allergies.
(2) Why go outside when you can play videogames and work your indoor patch of earth? Oops, I mean, your "artificially regulated pool of nutrients."
(3) Introduce your child to the people with the "giant aerogarden", otherwise known as the neighbourhood marijuana farm. I'm sure they have lots to share about "high yield growing methods".
(4) While I do have grow-lights in my own basement, I wonder about the "green sense" in using electricity to turn on a red warning light telling to water your plants. I see they're expanding into Aerogarden "wall gardens" too. Wow, more eco-friendliness. No, there is no mention of being "carbon-neutral" on their site.
(5) Pushing buttons on your aerogarden and prevention of childhood, no relationship here.
I especially like this quote from the website:

"Tested by NASA for growing high-yield,
pesticide-free crops for space travel."

Have we not all heard about the scourge of space aphids? Shuttle slugs? Astro-beetles? Fear not, the website explains why they need to avoid pesticides:

"Pesticides and other chemicals are considered too toxic
to introduce into the confined
environments of space living."

Wow, so the astronauts just have to suck it up and cohabit with the weightless tomato horn worms! Somebody really thought this one through.

Pink Potentilla and Columbines

The columbines are blooming now and I'm braving the blowing fluff from the cottonwood trees to take photograph them. Sneeze, sneeze, sniff...I started several of these Potentilla x "Helen Jane" two years ago. They have an intense raspberry-pink flower. In good soil and full sun, the largest plant has gotten about 90 cm wide by 50 cm tall. It is not a compact plant, being rather open, but not quite "sprawling".

This is the neighbour's dock across the street. I'm assuming the grandkid's bicycles are destined for a splash in Lac La Ronge. Here are the three sandcherries we planted two years ago. My grand plan is to facilitate cross-pollination between all the cherry trees/shrubs in the yard: Nanking cherry (Prunus tomentosa), Pincherry (Prunus pensylvanica) , "Carmine Jewel" dwarf sour cherry and sandcherry (Prunus x cistena). The dwarf sour cherry apparently can self-pollinate, but I understand that the other trees all have better yields when cross-pollinated. I'm not sure if the Nanking cherries are going to make it this year though, as they haven't leafed out yet! Good grief!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Medicinal Plants

When we first moved here, I was quite interested in growing a pharmaceutical or physic garden, with medicinally important plants. I am also interested in ethnobotany of the indigenous populations (Woodland Cree). Unfortunately, many of the traditionally important plants are unknown among the local population I have talked to. Few seem to know the names of the medicinal plants anymore.

The most well-known medicinal plant in our area is called "ratroot", also called wild ginger or sweetflag. I believe the scientific name for this plant is Acorus calamus. I know it is a plant that grows in marshy areas (and munched by the muskrat) and the root is harvested and used to make teas or to be chewed directly. At the very least, there don't seem to be any significant toxicities related to it. Its actions are usually described as a general "cure for what ails you". Like any good medicinal agent, it tastes terrible! Some locals harvest it, and it can be purchased from the trading post. Here is a picture of some ratroot we keep around the house, for no particular reason:
Some medicinally or ethnically important plants in my yard:

Willow: tree that contains salicin, a natural "aspirin"; branches of willow can be used to construct sweatlodges, and thus the steam produced inside could contain salicin.

Digitalis (Foxglove): contains a cardiac glycoside, which slows the heart rate, which also explains how it can kill you.

Convallaria majalis (Lily of the Valley): contains cardiac glycosides

Mondarda didyma (Bergamot, Oswego Tea): the Oswego natives (eastern Canada/US) made tea from this citrusy-scented herb.

Yarrow and Saskatoonberry grow wild, and both were important to indigenous peoples.

Also, Thymus vulgaris (Thyme)Lavandula angustifolia (Lavender)Echinacea purpurea (Purple coneflower).

Other traditional medicines still used in the local northern communities are bear grease and spruce gum (usually rubbed into the skin for rashes, but more often the spruce gum will increase irritation in eczema or psoriasis). Though probably a more recent remedy, the use of lard for a variety of ailments is common. Some women believe that eating a large amount of it will bring on labour. If not childbirth, the vast amount of fat should at least bring on the pain of a gallbladder attack.

Unfortunately, there is little remaining knowledge of traditional medicines. This is probably due to the colonial institutions that suppressed traditional practices and tried to force western medicine on the local peoples. Of course, at the time of colonization, there were no great cures for tuberculosis, so native people knew schools and hospitals as places to aquire and die of lung disease. Due to various social issues, tuberculosis is still common among Canadian Aboriginal communities. A few years ago, I read an interesting book on the social and medical history of the local peoples:

Maureen K. Lux, "Medicine That Walks: Disease, Medicine, and Canadian Plains Native People, 1880-1940". University of Toronto Press, 2001.

From the back cover: "Biological invasion, Lux argues, was accompanied by military, cultural, and economic invasions, which combined with both the loss of the bison herds and forced settlement on reserves, led to population decline. The diseases killing the plains Aboriginal people were not contagious epidemics but the grinding diseases of poverty, malnutrition, and overcrowding."

Saturday, June 23, 2007

"Skagit Valley" Tulip Again

This is a celebration of the ebbing days of the tulip in 2007: here is my latest blooming tulip, named after the tulip-growing valley in Washington state, USA. "Skagit Valley" is a beautiful bicolor tulip. I don't see it in my catalogs this year, but it is similar to one named "Shirley" in the Botanus catalog. Speaking of catalogs, I am going to order some fall bulbs in the next few days. Some of the catalogs have these limited time offers, and I plan to take advantage of them. I usually order fall bulbs from Veseys and Botanus.

I get the Breck's catalog but I don't like that they often omit Latin names or category names (ie. botanical tulips, single late tulips, etc.). Instead, they have some fanciful names and I sometimes wonder if their marketing department just makes these up. For example, they have a fantastic picture of the "Ice Stick Tulip", but nowhere do they tell you that it's a Kaufmanniana Hybrid -- a division XII tulip which will naturalize and is known to be extremely long-lived. I suppose this is like the stereotypical woman buying a car joke:

Salesperson: "What kind of care are you looking for ma'am?"
Woman: "I'd like a red car."

Well, I'd certainly never let resident-lawnmower-man buy my tulips...

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Another La Ronge Garden

Today I visited the garden of fellow garden enthusiast (and long-ago transplant from the UK, the breeding-ground of garden enthusiasts/eccentrics). It is good to get inspiration from other gardeners, and in this case, I can peruse other plants that are demonstrably hardy to our climate.
Rambling clematis, and various perennials at a friend's La Ronge garden:
This friend is a self-confessed primula fancier, revelling in growing semi-hardy primulas and rejoicing when they reappear each spring. I think her primula-related activities are a covert rebellion against the horticulture "establishment". This 70-some-year-old seems to enjoy puffing away on a cigarette while re-telling glorious stories of the educated horticultural characters and garden-center gurus whose pronoucements have been refuted by the very existence of certain plants in her little perennial patch.
Trollius (Globeflower)

We all have different motivations in our gardening. For my mother, gardening is not a task to be savoured. It is a sweaty, painful endeavor, not unlike childbirth. She even admits that she weeds the garden only to save herself from embarrassment in the eyes of a "real gardener". Regardless, my parent's yard generally looks quite nice, as it is quite established with shrubs and trees.

Gentiana verna (Spring Gentian), my friend's new favourite plant. I should have put something in the photo to show scale, as the entire plant could fit in your palm.

For my friend the primula queen, her now-deceased father passed on the love of plants. He took her to famous British gardens as a child, offering to hold her shoes and stockings so that she could run freely with the grass between her toes. She fondly cherishes her giant delphiniums, grown from seeds sent from the UK by her father before he died -- the last seeds he ever sent. I hope that my descendants pick up some love of plants, not only for my sake, but because it is such an enjoyable and enriching endeavor.

Friend's newly-aquired Finnish Rhododendron cultivar, possibly "Helsinki University". Before this, I never knew of any Rhodo we could grow here. I might possibly need to have one of my own!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

My Little Vegetable Garden

My few years as a garden fanatic have mostly focused on the flowers, neglecting the more prudent tasks of dirt-grubbers: vegetable gardening. Two years ago, resident-lawnmower-man built me two raised beds for herbs and vegetables. The very small herb bed gets afternoon shade and is currently growing parsley, cilantro, basil, chives and lettuce. I am hoping that the shade will prolong time to bolting. The bigger raised bed (all of about 10 feet x 4 feet) is in full sun and contains one rhubarb and one strawberry plant at the far end. The 3 "Sugary" grape tomatoes look like they were near death due to a late frost (around June 1), but are doggedly putting out new growth. Otherwise, my seedlings of rosemary, scallions, beets, carrots, savory, lettuce, dill and cilantro are coming up well. I also threw in a few sunflowers and nasturtiums for color and edible blooms. Now, for those neat and orderly vegetable growers out there, please don't judge my garden too harshly. I really should spend more time growing my own food. However, I usually just go out and throw a bunch of seeds in some dirt, label the spot and then wish the plants luck. I can't say I have the energy to follow weather reports and lovingly blanket my plants with poly to keep frost off like Ottawa Gardener.

Also, I have been wanting to get the book "Square Foot Gardening" by Mel Bartholomew. This method claims to be less work and more productive. A search of the blogosphere revealed many gardeners with pictures of neat little square foot gardens. I only wish I could have the patience for this. Oh well, next year...

Here's the largest of my hostas. This plant was just barely coming out of the ground at this time last month! It is Hosta sieboldiana "Elegans" and it is living in part shade (next to a Pulmonaria that has just finished blooming).

Columbines and a Public Park Rant

The late June flowers are now taking over from the glorious show of the tulips. Columbines are blooming in full sun, with the shaded plants yet to bloom. Columbines (Aquilegia) are generally recommended for part sun, but mine seem to do okay in full sun, perhaps because of slightly cooler conditions here.

This is an unknown downwards-facing tall pink flowered aquilegia.

I just started a bunch more columbines from seed under lights in the basement. They are a mix from the "Songbird" series, because I decided at some point last year that these definitely were the most beautiful of columbines, with their long spurs, and upwards-facing blooms. I got them from Swallowtail seeds, which has a nice listing of various aquilegias. Most aquilegias are extremely easy to grow from seed.
I have several of these purple aquilegias, several of which grew from seedlings of an old plant that was in the yard when we moved in.

The "rock garden" plants are keeping this steep bank intact and looking pretty while doing it. In the center is a white-flowered aquilegia whose blooms are yet to open. At top center is the white-flowered Dicentra spectabilis Alba (white version of the common bleeding heart). It has to be in part shade, otherwise it burns in our weather.

The white spots all over the dirt are not confetti, perlite, or fertilizer, but the fallen petals from the mountain ash tree.

This lovely pink flowered plant with bluish-grey foliage is the 2006 perennial of the year, Dianthus gratianopolitanus 'Firewitch' (English for 'Feuerhexe', its original German name). It is one of the cheddar pinks (Dianthus have several different types, such as the Maiden pinks, Garden pinks, etc.) and grows in zones 3-9 in full sun.
Swallowtail butterfly on my lilac bush. I'm very allergic to the despised shrub, but I'm glad these colorful critters can appreciate it!

Hopefully the garden will be looking good for this weekend, as some locals came by last night asking to have their wedding photographs in our yard. The yard really is taking on a life of its own -- not only does it have its own website, but it's hosting wedding photos!
Unfortunately, our town has only 6 public parks, one of whose landscaping highlights consists of lawn and a water treatment facility. They are hardly a desirable place to take wedding photos. I suppose this lack of landscaping is supposed to be consistent with a "natural" appearance, but the lack of beautiful common areas is disappointing to me. At least we could have a patch of native wildflowers to add some sparkle to the beachfront parks! They could detract from the only source of color at the moment: fast food packaging and discarded potato chip bags.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Grand Finale of the Tulip Show

I'm back from another visit to Vancouver, BC. I forgot how large the hostas there can be. Wow. I guess it makes a difference when a hosta can grow year round, vs. retreating to an underground bunker until mid-May only to give it a go for a 4 month romp in the sun. The Vancouver "steroid" hostas could swallow up a cyclist, making mine look like stunted lettuces. I revel in the fact that we have few slugs here (unlike Vancouver), but considering the size of their lush plants, it could take the slugs a long time to decimate the landscape.

Back at home, I went out to see the "Skagit Valley" single late tulips. They have purple-edged white blooms, which are quite lovely and unlike my other tulips. The purple seems to become more evident as the blooms age.
Here is a nice view of the large raised bed. Snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum) is the white groundcover blooming in the foreground. I have had it for a year and have yet to experience its apparent invasive tendencies. Maybe it lies in wait to ambush you, like the catmint did this year. At least its carpet of catmint seedlings is keeping down the other weeds.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Nut Point Wildflowers

We went for a hike on the trail in the Nut Point Provincial Park recently. In case you are not familiar with the area, it is described as boreal forest and includes rocky outcroppings interspersed with small lakes. Peaty bog areas are found in low-lying areas and there is evidence of felled and scorched trees from a fire several years ago. My special interest is stalking the wildflowers and capturing them with my camera (the best kind of hunting). I am not an expert flower photographer, sadly, but here are some of the flowers we found:
Trientalis borealis, growing on a rotten stump:
I don't know what this was and my close-up photos were not in focus. It reminds me of a Pulmonaria (lungwort) with its blue flowers. Like Pulmonaria, the unopened buds are pink.
The pink corydalis (Corydalis sempervirens), growing in the open on a rock face. Labrador tea shrubs (Ledum groenlandicum) carpet vast areas of the rocky terrain. This plant is one of the first to recolonize burned bog areas, which is consistent with its abundance here. Along with Labrador tea, there were thousands of blueberry, lingonberry (aka cranberry), bearberry, and bunchberry plants in bloom.
Of course, there were plenty of pink lady's slippers. These ones were at the trailhead, just outside the Nut Point Campground. These are almost always found in rocky areas, among moss and under dappled shade of spruce trees. Of course, never never dig these flowers up! They are rare and protected and besides, are in a provincial park!

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Wild Orchids in Bloom

Cypripedium acaule, the pink lady slipper, is blooming now behind our property. These bunches are prized by our dear elderly neighbour (and eminent La Ronge trading post pioneer), who walked back there one day to show us his "secret" and made us promise not to tell anyone about it (I know that none of you blog-readers will come looking...). Previously, I had only seen the smaller plant groups. This year I went out to the little clearing he had shown us and found some large groups of the lovely flowers. Enjoy the pictures that I took over the past two evenings:

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Spring Colors and Textures

Here is a perennial that looks great this spring: Arabis blepharophylla "Spring Charm". I'm not sure if it's the hairy leaves that gave it the Latin name meaning "eyelash-leaved", but the bright pink flowers on this plant look lovely. I would love to have a few more like this one.

For a perennial that you can't kill, produces perky purple flowers, will spread itself around liberally, infiltrate the lawn and give an aroma of onions when you mow it, good old chives are the answer. I have removed most of these from my perennial beds, but I leave a few around and then cut the flowers off before they go to seed. I want to try some of the giant flowered alliums next year, but I know their hardiness will be in question. Every bulb catalog claims a different zone, so I might just buy a few different ones and cross my fingers. Any tips from prairie growers?

Here are some more pictures of my tulips in the long raised bed. I have a few open spaces in this bed, but each year the spaces are filling in. I planted some poppy seeds in the back of the bed this spring and I notice that the seedlings are about an inch tall now. There is a cluster of Pacific giant delphiniums intermixed with cleome in the center, and I'm hoping for a great show this summer.

"Florissa" single late tulip in the bright morning sun.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Horses Ride into La Ronge!

And now for a slightly less garden-related story...we were priviledged to have the RCMP musical ride here in town for a show this evening. The weather was beautiful. It rained this morning and was cloudy and cool today but the sun was perfect for the horses this evening. I was impressed to see that several of the riders were from Saskatchewan. The event was fundraising for a local girl with retinoblastoma (cancer in both of her eyes) who has to travel to a distant children's hospital for treatments.
The members rode in formation to recorded music including the theme song to Hockey Night in Canada. In the back of the program for the evening is a public service announcement: Say "neigh" to drugs. Ah, you gotta love us Canadians! I have no idea how I'd never seen the musical ride before in my life, having only ever lived in cities much larger than La Ronge. For answers to questions on the musical ride, see the RCMP site. The horses are Hanoverians mixed with Thoroughbreds, bred in Ontario specifically for the fashionable black color. Yes, apparently in 1937, it was noted that the red serge looked particularly stunning against a black horse. I also liked the maple leaf they imprint (not a brand, just creative grooming) on the horses' rumps.
Here's a picture of my Narcissus Poetaz "Geranium" in the last evening light:

Resident-lawnmower-man takes our fluffy companion out for a walk. She's pretty impatient about pictures when there's an impending walk!

Gardening Goes High-Tech

Resident-lawnmower-man (RLM) could only sigh about this I do not have a Playstation or Wii or Xbox or even a fancy new iPod. No, I've been playing with landscaping software. I previously had bought a similar type of (cheaper) software that you could use to design homes for fun, but it had some terrible programming and the bugs precluded its successful use. Recently, I've been thinking about replacing more lawn with a large bed containing the trees and shrubs in the center of the lawn, but I'm hesitant to go out there and actually do it.
Here you can see the existing yard and the new digital design - from the front of the yard:
Currently RLM has to mow and trim around the trees and I've noticed damage on the base of the crabapple. Okay, so it's more than an issue of saving the trees and reducing lawn-mowing, and I have been envisioning more flowers, more shrubs, and perhaps an artful arrangement of rocks on the center of the yard. I have no idea what kind of style you would call it, but it would have to reflect the flowing curves of the current rock walls. RLM wanted a "dry creek bed" design, I'm suggesting more "stones strewn around by twirling glaciers". I figure that this bed can have bark mulch as groundcover around all the plants and I'd use only hardy, low-maintenance shrubs and perennials in the bed. It would be edged with black plastic edging for ease of maintenance.
From the deck on the second floor:
Maybe I was inspired by those reality TV shows that use computers to virtually landscape yards and put new shutters on the houses (or at least I know that RLM is a sucker for these shows and maybe he'll like my digital design). I made a 3D model of my house, the terrain, and existing landscaping of my lot and then plunked down my new flowerbed. The program is amazing, I must say. It is powerful in that they have thousands of plants, trees, shrubs and all the miscellaneous features (gnomes, edging, lights, mulch, benches, BBQs) you might want. You can customize the 3D model to accurately match your yard and house, but the terrain landscaping (elevations at various points in the yard) is a bit difficult to set up. This isn't so much the program's fault but the fact that I don't have a topographical map of my uneven and hilly yard, so I had to make some guesses and I think I got it "good enough".
From the back yard:
Potential plants in my new bed:
  • Echinacea
  • Stonecrop
  • Alpine Currants
  • "Silvermound" Artemisia
  • Bergenia cordifolia
  • Bird's Nest spruce
  • Potentilla fruticosa
  • maybe Solomon's Seal
  • The area already contains: 1 Colorado blue spruce, 3 sandcherries, 3 Carmine Jewel tart cherries, and a pink Japanese flowering crabapple.

Feedback anyone? You know, this is the ultimate answer to a rainy day in the garden - virtual indoor gardening! I bought the program from this site, if anyone should want to check it out (I'm not advertising here). You'd probably want to be pretty comfortable with your computer and have a 3D video card to be able to use this program. My computer is 3 yrs old but I've installed more RAM and a new 3D video card.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

That Little Azalea that Could

I finally got to see blooms on my "Orchid Lights" Northern Lights Series azaleas after two years of waiting. This is the hardiest variety of the northern lights series, but a late May frost killed the buds last year. This year, I burlapped the two plants over winter until early May and I protected them from a mid-May storm with some overturned pots. While I have the gardener weakness called "pushing the hardiness zones", I didn't figure that this shrub was much of a stretch for our area. Besides, we already have acidic soil, which azaleas should appreciate. I laughed aloud while reading Des Kennedy's book "Crazy About Gardening" recently. It was loaned by another gardener who thought I'd appreciate it. How sad that resident-lawnmower-man couldn't understand any of the brilliant humor I saw in this book (clearly, he's no gardener). With regards to the weather and gardeners who challenge it, on page 55:
"These aren't people to be daunted by permafrost, and they're certainly not about to be intimidated by threats of premature thawing or winter sun scald. However, too many years spent in brutal growing conditions can induce in certain gardeners a brash combativeness, a refusal to acknowledge that their microclimatic cleverness has its limits. They become weather vain. It's disconcerting to encounter a seasoned grower in northern Saskatchewan seriously contemplating the cultivation of mangoes."

To this I say: mangoes no, azaleas yes.