Doing as You Are Told

Day 101: To persist with gardening is to finally get used to doing as you are told. Don Juan climbing If you have an extreme aversion to obedience, you likely won’t stick with gardening. I did not fence in my brassicas, as I’d been warned to do, only partly because I was overwhelmed with too much to do simultaneously. Partly. The other part of me wondered “who but someone trying to be hip would honestly choose to eat kale?” …and …”really? broccoli?”…but last night at 9:30 p.m. precisely, I met the likely foe (note this shot is of another of my visitors) Turkeythat had two weeks ago “disappeared” my entire brassica section, the first night doing the vanishing act with all the cauliflower and broccoli, the second night, the relatively repulsive kale. Last night, what I surmise is a hare (too large for a rabbit, but the ears were too short for a hare), decided to first stare me down, then quite clearly befriend me. We spent about half an hour together, about four yards apart, the hare doing a little nibbling tour of the perimeter of my garden, me inching so close I couldn’t believe the hare’s decision to just keep a watchful eye on me and keep munching. Perhaps it was a form of thanks for all those yummy muffins I’d provided earlier. It was such a privileged experience to have, but today I will spend the time necessary to fence in the little kale stubs that remain. Bitten kale

I am still working flat out every day, beginning my work at anywhere from 5:30 a.m. to 7 a.m., quitting sometime between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. I have mastered the art of working through often intense heat, but am pretty surprised at how little one person can accomplish within a month and a half of full time landscaping and gardening. I estimate another five days of full time work before I’ll feel I can relax this schedule to let in some other parts of my life again, while still keeping things slowly progressing here. lettuce patchBut in this month and a half, I have entirely altered my relationships with plants with the growing practice of obedience. Squashes & carrots

Princess Auto

Day 78: What an exciting place! I’d never been inside one before Monday. I’d ordered a 10″ bladed pole saw, which is a chain saw on a long stick. It had come in. I used to buy shoes, now it’s matching battery tools. I got a jack knife to pare down my cedar garden trellis materials to a point fine enough to dig into the soil. I got ordinary staples, sand paper, and more attention than I most often get at Canadian Tire. It was a wondrous experience to wander their aisles and for an hour and a half, I was in love. But I got out while I still had my wits and wallet about me.

I have stories to tell of snapping turtles, of a terrified hummingbird trapped in my shed, of tree-climbing men quoting me two hundred dollars an hour to fell trees, my newfound love of cotter pins, and replacing a wheel on a trailer, and much more.

But the real story here is that at 8:35 a.m. on Saturday June 9th, I planted the last grape vine, and my 33 fruits garden was planted, watered, mulched, and the pine and cedars that had stood in the way were down. I could hardly believe I’d actually made my deadline, and the project of fleshing out the hardscaping and boundaries could take their sweet time to develop. I had done what I foolishly set out to do.

I have planted my roses (still in deep shade, so cutting cedars is my next urgency); I have now terraced five sections of a vegetable garden; built a bean trellis; have potatoes that are putting on about six inches a day and need hilling up; tomatoes, peppers, beans, peas, curcurbits of all kinds, brassicas, and I am ready to call all that too a victory against ridiculously pressing time. I am exhausted, and I have lost five pounds eating chocolate cake and oreo cookies to inject instantaneous fuel into my crazy pace.

There is an enormous amount of refinement to be continued, but I can be human again. Yesterday I stood still in the vast barn to soak in the sunlit feeling of being. It’s now that life at Styx Crossing really begins, and for my gardening progress to slow. It’s time to begin this wordy interplay between myself, this place, my life, and the reverberations I hold of my garden-writing father. Fred in veg gdn Amarylis


Day 61: Make no mistake, I had begun to lose faith by late last week, feeling the amount I’d committed to do was more than I had time or strength to manage. 1527541738379551404721 But at some point I readied myself for likely plant loss, so that I could inch forward with continuing focus.  The riding mower has packed it in, which means I will likely lose the use of its workhorse trailer as it sits in a repair shop for two weeks. This means I needed to plan for car access so the new trees can be watered with siphon from twenty litre blue “kersene” jugs just acquired at Canadian Tire. I spent hours on the phone and driving silly distances just to track down enough all-purpose (sharp) sand to be able to transplant my carrots: you would think it was rare gems I’d been seeking. I drove fourteen bags of the stuff (surplus) up here with my car shocks groaning. I’ve had to cut both a foot path and separate car trail through woods, and haul the resulting debris to a wood pile, just to be able to access the planned garden location. 20180528_130648.jpgThe plans have needed adjustment several times as I realize flaws in the aesthetics or math. The measuring of the field seemed endless, making parallel lines with no visual references seemed unobtainable, and the heat limits how much sun I can work under. 20180528_131409.jpgThis morning at 9:10am I reached a pivotal moment. The area was staked, double checked, and swiftly then three cherry tree holes were dug waiting for early morning planting tomorrow. The apple tree hole I dug is now a design change, so another will be dug tomorrow. After the snail’s pace things are moving inexorably toward proving what has just been a very brazen dream and theory until now. Two cedars this afternoon were “given room” as rose supports, so four beautiful David Austin roses can go in the ground anytime it’s cool enough to plant again. I may be sitting in a sea of unmown dandelions, but it really feels now as though the bottle has been smashed, this ocean liner has been christened, and it is now set free to the waves.

Spring Concertina

20180523_072853.jpgDay 56It is going to be a tiring day today..far too much to do. Because there is too much, I have learned what “heeling in” fruit trees and roses consists of, the end lives of…I am learning the limitations of a Canadian spring, and it would seem I’ve gained some deeply resonating understanding of my mad father combing the front hills in the cold wind and pouring rain with trees and spade in hand, and a nitroglycerin pack taped to his failing chest. I will never forget late in his life his nearly suicidal admission to me once over the phone that he had only managed to plant fifty trees.20180523_073327

A bundle of trees from Quebec.
I do respond today to a family member’s jibe this week about similarities to Suzanna Moodie, having to clear some bush to even see where to plant a new fruit garden in a meadow beyond the stand of evergreens ….creating parallel lines seems the reason I did not do well in math at school.20180523_073228
Roses from Van Noort & Sons
Rain Friday night, Saturday, and Monday: like a farmer I check weather forecasts multiple times a day, and have noted my weather app counts a ninety percent certainty of overnight rain as zero chance of precipitation for that date.

Monumental Moment

Day 48: Let it be known that at 5pm Eastern Standard Time today May 14 2018, Blue Saphire Iris went in the ground. 97b2f7-175 I split one plant across the rhizome twice, so even in this the first year, the path will span the length of the intended walk with several of them. Then followed beside it like a soldier, Black Dragon Iris, also divided, and ten tiny basement raised Sweetness Dianthus. Tomorrow Rosalie Figge Iris will join the ranks. Oddly, this changes everything.

Back Breaking Work

Day 47:  I have degenerative disk disease in my back, and periodically it has crippled me since I was a teenager. So over the decades I have learned a few things about what triggers painful paralysis and what does not, and it’s not obvious to those who haven’t experienced this. In returning to Hamilton last week, I spent a day sitting on a cushion in my city back yard, ridding the beds of two inch lightly rooted weeds flowering in soft sandy loam. My back went seriously out, I should have known better, and drugs and time on my back on the hard floors delayed my return to the farm. I had six fruit trees to pick up and get to Bruce County before they could wake up from their winter nap or die, so next day, I barely stivered to the car hoping the drive would not make things worse. First Fruit Tree Pickup

Three cherry, two plums and a quince.

Still hunched as I got out of the car on arrival, I despaired at my spring ambitions, and unpacked. The following day was a new world. Digging a pretty shallow trench for my longed-for iris walk to the barn, I struggled to create two dug blocks, thirty-three inches by twenty-seven inches, about ten inches deep. Iris RocksFrom two holes, about fifty percent of the volume is rock. My back became fine. Had I decided to lean over the bathroom sink slightly to brush my teeth, my back likely would have “gone out” for days. My iris dream continues, and the car is also packed with edible or blooming basement babies again for another green instalment heading north. Time to get spuds in the ground.Basement Babies on the move


Fears and Fantasies

Day 40: As with most things in life, greatest joy is in the anticipation. Doing is mostly very tedious and pedantic work. In my case it will also be lonely work. A trip around the amazing world begins with standing in a demeaning government line to renew one’s passport, packing one’s meagre suitcase, arranging for bills to be paid and funds to be accessed while away, sorting out intricate train, plane and bus route schedules, and on it goes for the entire trip. So too with my 2018 journey back to Styx Crossing I feel my exhilaration abruptly diffuse upward like warm vapour on a cold day.

Unlike any other year I go prepared this time to garden, though what that means is a great resource for fears and fantasies. Fear I’ll kill my little plants with frost, weeds, bad planning, exhaustion, ineptitude or neglect; fantasies about grand glories that could be after ten years of someone else’s hard labour or a monk’s life that is not something I at all wish for my longed-for self-indulgent old age. I have packed my paraphernalia and suitcase – more crucially my plant cases and flower pots, and will be back in seven days for another instalment. Packed to go

For the basement again I have newly started sunflowers, squashes, pumpkins, courgettes of all colours and sizes, and cosmos, all for a later trip. So many because this will be the year of variety trials so that next year I may know a few standbys.  Squashes 2018I have longed for and researched fantastic subterranean or prefab greenhouses with optimal heating for each, but more appropriately, when and how to plant out various delicate greenery that is now only three inches high and soon to be in my car. subterranean greenhouse I have changed my mind four times about how I wish to build the view out the kitchen window, formerly to be confined narrowly now widely, the size and order of the six rotation sections of kitchen garden, the future possible rill down the rose-lined hill now barren or forested, the more immediate location and build of necessary cold frames, and the exact makeup and width of a new iris walk to the barn. I have never enjoyed attention to minutiae in anyone least of all me, but gardening is teaching me a late character lesson about devils and details. Finally every Easter flower from my house is now either packed to go north with me, or has been transplanted into my city garden. Hydrangea_VanillaSkyThe seedlings I am leaving behind for a week are sitting in wet beds.

It is time to stop theorizing and dreaming: the dread of the necessary endless hours at the end of a shovel hitting stone after stone in the ground has started to fray my formerly enormous nerve.


Day 37: Success can be a frightening thing, but this is just sheer triumph. The measure of botanic miracle is in whether delphinium in numbers can be obtained first season for a mere pittance, and after three years of failure to bring those seed to life under lights, I have dozens and dozens of them! I have maroon petunias and snap dragons, azure salvia and sweet peas, clove-scented dianthus, indigo viola (germinated in the dark), and more. Delphinium seedlings

I have multiple kales, peas, multi-coloured cauliflower and carrots, bok choy, broccoli, many lettuces, red orach, cabbages, chards, soy, fava and broad beans, eggplant, peppers, and thyme.  I have passed a test and I am overjoyed. Tomatoes were never even in question.Peas, lavender, onion & kaleThough the spring has put us back at least a month, there will be a concertina effect within days: spring and frenetic garden work will hit with a compression bang, so I’ll be heading to Styx Crossing with many of these babies in a week. Up there, the clock will be ticking furiously. I have no time to get or build any greenhouse, no lights, not even cold frames, so until that alters, I’ll be back and forth, bush to city quite a bit until the major first-week-of-June plant. Since weed is the most prolific crop there, one of my first tasks may be to create a temporary weed-free bedding area, but the peas need to find their summer home possibly before I even open my own.

This split location propagating has been worth much on-line research; the benefits and pit-falls, the relative costs of additional tube lighting, unheated cold frames, or greenhouse construction – this research is what I have spent more than a few days on the couch doing.  And though the romantic in me is very badly longing to stand in my own greenhouse, I am reaching the more rational conclusion that I just may never need one up north. The vulnerable period between two inch basement seedling and robust tomato plant in the windy yard must be travelled very carefully. I think a modest addition of artificial lights kept up north combined with substantive cold frames is where I am likely headed. Whether I have time to build any makeshift cold frames this spring remains to be seen, but if not, I can heft the little ones in and out of the comfortable house as weather permits like fat-cheeked babies in a pram. And as if someone wishes to personally bless me for my courage and blind faith in the dark and cold winter basement over the last two months, this morning I received my 2018 letter of invitation to Jardin de Quatre-Vents in Saguenay-Saint-Laurent. Life is, on occasion, just so darned good. delphiniumbluedonnalandscape


Day 34: I am old enough to have attended school when grades were given with strict and seemingly arbitrary rule. And since up until grade thirteen when grades finally mattered, my mind was never on school for any moment of my attendance of it, I was habituated, if not used, to the heavily negative passenger called failure, which for me came with anything short of seventy-five percent, and was most of what I ever attained within curriculum content at school. From first to twelfth grade, I never got below a passing grade, but somehow in a family of intellects, fifty was not any measure of failure: that would have been a sign of brain damage. Ellagance 1 month

Ellagance Lavender one month in.

In researching how to start celery seed, I learn that a sixty percent germination rate is high success indeed. For some plant species, forty percent is success. And in my first attempts at raising seed to garden planting, my success rate was closer to fifteen percent, and that seemed a humiliating enough reason to give up trying. I have since learned not only much of what I was doing was thwarting success, but that failure in gardening is not just inevitable, but happens to world renowned gardeners, and that eighty percent is well-nigh perfect. Hidcote Munstead 1.2 months

Hidcote and Munstead Lavender one and a half months in.

What can go wrong? This year my Hidcote and Munstead lavender rides at about a fifteen percent germination rate, and no one seems to know how to improve this: cover with a humidity dome, keep wet, keep dry, leave off the lid? I get shrugs but no answers. Surely this should be an easy science by now. Then, some of my cell packs caved in the middle, where the light heated the plastic perhaps, or the weight of bottom water brought their retaining walls to recede, or a manufacturing error, I’m not sure what has caused this. But the result is that in the central quadrant of at least two large flats, nothing got watered, nothing germinated. I won’t buy more of this brand, and I likely won’t ever buy more 48 cell packs, but instead pack multiples of smaller components into one tray so that each can be removed as differing seedling growth rates determine differing transplant dates.

cell wall collapse

Cell pack wall collapse.

Last year, my city yard contained every possible garden pest and plague I’d both heard of and hadn’t. This, whether true or not, I deemed to be my fault. In lieu of having other ready material, I had used immature compost from my yard bins as mulch, but I will never know if this, or improperly sterilized tools, insufficient feeding, the general damp, or something else entirely caused so much disease, such as hollyhock rust.

hollyhock-rustI am highly grumpy and emotionally frail about garden failures yet, and this I attribute to never having been counselled while growing up, that failure is just one small component of all roads to success. Quite the opposite. I was not-so-subliminally deemed the “dummy” by my mother in a family of near geniuses. Which book I chose to read was inevitably a dim reflection of my worth; the music I listened to was ranked by my brothers; and whether I chose to be with friends or to be alone, was always the foolhardy decision according to my mother. Even much later in life, while having to suddenly earn a living at real estate, the overtly taught mantra of courting failure as route to success, seemed an atrocious con job perpetrated the slick and well-paid motivational speakers I suffered through. But none-the-less, at least on an intellectual level, the benefits and wisdom of learning good from failure are ever so slowly getting through to me, and its injurious nature becomes a little bit easier to bear. Still, at the age of nearly sixty-five years, I grit my teeth and feel shame.



Spring of the Endless Winter

Day 30: The wind blusters and slams screen doors before dawn, and the tulips and hydrangeas I bought to cheer the house for Easter dinner sit huddled together in my living room for protection. The cold days drag on. But in that time, I do not stall hope and plants and green chores. So my new iris path to the barn is now in near dormant rows on a wire shelf in a cold shed behind my city kitchen. Iris path picks  I have bought and employed a mechanical composter that efficiently turns my live kitchen scrap slime into pristine rich fertilizer in about three hours, thus nicely saving my two yard compost piles from overflow.


I have raked the front yard to allow the promise of spring to fool the neighbours. I’ve found two extra-large statement planters to replace the two that were crumbling with age.


I set up the two-shelf light stand my father gave me for Christmas thirty years ago, and another four, four-foot tubes set over work tables. I remember my father’s two short light trays propped up by bricks, a very small allowance amidst the bulky business of a family of six, growing just one or two tomatoes, and the odd bulb for Christmas display, and I wonder if its deep modesty frustrated him, though at the time, I paid no attention. For that reason, every year I take this on, it is an experiment with highly mixed results. This year I haven’t killed anything yet, but it’s early days yet. Upstairs, I’ve indulged in two beautifully fragrant topiaried myrtles, then re-potted my forty year old benji; planted and set under said lights seeds for kale, peppers, onions, peas, tomatoes and much else.


I’ve selected a safer basement space heater designed to be wall mounted close enough to this little light farm to counteract the chilly reality of an April Canadian cellar. And I linger over the spring smells I can manage to bring into my comfortably heated living areas.


I read a biography of another gardener, the sculptor Isamu Noguchi, called “Listening to Stone” as I listen for spring. I also watch the seven day weather forecasts like a person obsessed. Now for me, this is what early spring is all about in Canada, not any escape to Mexico.

The waiting itself brings poetry.