Some Things Old Some Things New

Day 24: In the dreariness of any nameless winter’s day, I sink to the dark chilly cellar of my home, to do a tedious annual task, one that reduces the risk of passing on plant disease from one growing season to the next. Under the gloomy light provided by the single bulb over my laundry tub, I empty, wash and scrub seed trays and dozens of tiny gritty pots with warm soapy water and a brush. Tomato cage cleaningThen I mix a solution of watery but still stinky bleach, and wipe down tomato cages, pruning sheers, and trowels. Winter pot smashingI ruthlessly smash cracked pots to smithereens,  make tidy towers of ever-decreasing dimensioned pots, and try to anticipate what I may be missing for the lead up to outdoor growth. This year I made another trip slightly north, to W. Dam Seeds, to heft a substantially sized lumpen mass of bagged transplant soil high into my car, then thump it down and up the porch steps, drag it thudding again off each basement step, prematurely anticipating the victorious moment still more than a month away, when it will be employed for a few basement seedlings that might actually need potting on well before the grass outside turns green. And then I attend to the dismal email response from Speer and Jackson that unequivocally states their fifteen year warranty means nothing for them, that my two simple sandy uses that broke their flimsy border fork at the two rivets amounts to “wear and tear” which they refute is enveloped by any fifteen year unconditional brag printed on the unbroken portion of an English Oak tool shaft. So the old, both to initiate growth and to tend to growth, is now resolved for me for better and far worse.

Plastic: Four years ago my local dollar store was selling impressive towers of the tiniest clay pots I’d ever seen. Perhaps it was the coddler-of-cute-things in me rising up, or perhaps I acted because I have always disliked plastic in any form, and though I knew no one who had tried using clay rather than plastic or peat to start anything under lights, I could not resist buying the tiny masterpieces, in the end due primarily to their price tag. Did the Victorians use plastic? little clay pots

Four years ago I was making all kinds of mistakes with my several gardening attempts, not the least of which was deciding it was entirely up to me when to water things, certainly not up to the obstinate seed start mix in my diminutive basement pots. So nearly nothing I planted germinated. I do know that peat pots (peat is endangered) will kill most things, because the extreme wicking or sponge action of the tiny pot means that it is virtually impossible to ensure the seeds within it stay consistently watered. Too wet, and seeds and seedlings rot quickly. Too dry for even a day, and they’re simply gone. I’ve tried toilet paper rolls and newspaper pots, both of which, for me, promoted white fungus and bottom rot ages before transplant time. Two years ago, I finally caved and bought plastic. I hate to admit it, but for seed starts, it works so far for me like nothing else has. Why doesn’t someone make silicone trays or, even better, something simultaneously moldable, sterile, and biodegradable, such as the recent compressed mycelium (mushroom root) packaging? Would it too rot, dry, or give out far too quickly? The cow patch pots I’ve seen look far too suspiciously like peat pots for me to trust them.

pot size perspectiveAnd new? My Ellagance Lavender is up! Up up and away! Ellagance Lavender up after 2 weeksHidcote, Munstead, and no-name McKenzie seeds, a whole week older,               not so much. McKenzie LavendersI was advised by a gardener to vernalize lavender seeds for three days in the fridge before planting – but perhaps it is simply the varieties of lavender that stubbornly do not want to regenerate from seed. And the other new? Those brutally abandoned basement residing grape hyacinths (see above) and dahlia tubers, just one week ago given larger pots, appropriate soil, a bit of water and a modest amount of light? They are green and up – up, up, and almost away into the sun to mimic the real and imminent thing we all long for, spring.


Day 22: Just as old sweaters and shoes can bring on a sudden flood of memories, so too rusty bent garden tools, and for that reason we often hang on to them beyond their efficiencies, and often between generations. Certainly of all the gardening memories I have of my father, him finding the time to care for or even add to his tool collection is not one of them. He owned a hoe, which I still use, a spade, mattock, an excessively banged up rake with a missing tooth, and virtually nothing else. His spade was decidedly long handled. He used to try to persuade me the benefits of it, and though he was no taller than I, the shaft travels upwards well beyond my reach, and I never use it. Someday I will create a garden dedication structure to him with that spade as major component, but for now, it sits out its increasingly copper coloured loneliness against the farm shed wall, beside my stubby little thing I’ve tied a massive bright red ribbon around for easy tracking after I’ve inevitably left it plugged into the ground somewhere I’ve subsequently forgotten how to locate.

Hand tools can be such lovely things. Tools of beauty can be something run-of-the-mill found at Canadian Tire or even a dollar store, but rarely. More often, they are found in odd places at odd times. Good ones, ones worth every penny, are usually expensive and at least for Canadians, must be sought out with determination. Without having ever used one, in my second season of real gardening, I fell madly in love with the idea of using a robust garden fork with a heart-rending triangular hardwood hand made handle. Spear & Jackson made the only one I could find this side of the pond, so I ordered online, after my many useless journeys to bereft store suppliers. Ahh it looked and felt like a dream, until during my first season of use, in my pathetically soft city sandy loam, the hardwood shattered where it joined the metal. I can’t imagine it facing down Grey County clay and limestone rubble. Though a “10 year guarantee” still stares me in the face in big black ink on the fork’s shaft, my career and family demands have meant that so far I’ve done nothing to have the company replace it. Nevertheless, since the sear of the price paid burned so uncomfortably when I bought it, I will never buy their products again. I will pay twice as much.

Broken Fork

Standard trowels irritate me enormously. Why are they sold with toilet-paper-soft edges?


Yukky trowel

If actually used, why does the metal pit on so many of them? Why do they bend at the join after a couple of seasons? Why does anyone in any garden need plastic handles? So this year, I opened my wallet and bought a Sneeboer transplant trowel. It weighs like gold in my palm and is poised balanced like a dancer there, and if spring doesn’t come soon, I shall go mad with anticipation. I can see distinct scrape marks all over the spoon face, it is shaped like a winged heart, has sharply bevelled edges, and I feel that my own winged heart will surely sing when I come to use it. It’s smaller than a spade or fork, and will rely on me to provide its only motor.  Its price was $49.

Transplant Trowel


Paradise and Hades

Day 20: I have not blogged in seven days, the length of Christian biblical time God took to both create heaven and earth, and rest for a day. I have not rested much. The clutches of Hell have interfered heavily with my atheist psyche. Beloveds with sad health tribulations. A fifteen year next door neighbour shockingly missing from wife, daughter and family, literally disappearing with no hint, warning or clues. It has always been true, that fact can be less credible and certainly more dramatic than fiction. Styx Crossing is appropriately named for that miserable but crucial repeating theme of my life.

Under the literal earth lies an army of gods, microscopic though they mostly are, whose purpose for us and the planet alike is to transform utter darkness to blinding life; to travel the volatile distance between under and over and back again. Microbes hold the power to make or break life, and therefore paradise or hell.

I have made a stab this week coming to grips with my thorough ignorance on the subject of the underworld of organic and inorganic soil and plant chemistry. It is complicated. And in realizing how complicated it is, I have recalled with marvel that my father studied chemistry at university, even as he was Senior Editor of the University of Manitoba student newspaper, voraciously reading literary fiction through his science degree. A Renaissance Man all his life, H. Fred Dale typically had a window and balcony of humidified exotic plants to care for, an open reference volume to intimidate all but the most intrepid, three or more dense volumes of literature in his active pursuit, several newspaper subscriptions he made thorough use of, the New Yorker sitting dog-eared on the table along with at least four other periodicals, and often as not, something rather dignified or humorous on in the background on television. And through this, he could never resist a terrible pun, or being completely obtuse about human relations. Only looking back, I say he was a dear and fatherly impersonation of a microbe.

When he died, it was my job alone to sort out the cacophony of confusions he’d left behind. My sister took off for Germany. My mother retreated to recriminations and enormously diversionary seemingly life-or-death dramas. My husband found a twenty-eight year old to go to the virgin islands with, and went to war with me, sending open postcards back to my children gloating, and sending lawyers’ threats to me of eviction from our home by his deadline. Understanding huge unlabelled bags of mystery bug and plant poisons or fertilizers was not high on my list. So along with his enormous collection of LPs and home made wine apparatus, tall stacks of Malak Karsh garden photos, I dumped the lot. I am still trying to uncover from memory what I pitched. Does this have something to do with gardening? Yes.

This property on a molecular level is at one with both pleasure and deadly pain. The layers of meaning to every act I perform to renew this property, cannot help but be metaphor for more. It is no accident that for years I prolifically wrote poetry; the boundaries between literal and figurative, the massive and minute, are nearly invisible for me and always will be so. So?

I spent the week underground. Mychorrhizae products sourced to assist my bare rose roots in their dark planting hollows; blackest Tri-Kelp soluble powder and Root Boost newly sourced and picked up from Agriculture Solutions just west of Kitchener; binging, on the dry but excellent YouTube macro and micro-nutrient instructional including the best usefulness and timing for organic vs. non-organic fertilizers, courtesy of The Rusted Garden. So where are the beautiful visuals? Underground. Waiting to cross over.

The dark lure of fishy smelling seaweed.

Seaweed Kitty


Seeing Red

Millennium Hybrid Asparagus Roots 10 plants

Day 10: There were a few gaps in my planting plan that needed filling, so I’ve ordered the remaining items, mostly seeds, from William Dam Seeds and will pick them up this week. I’ll refurbish my long abandoned asparagus patch, waiting the requisite three years from root planting before I can harvest. But the thought of not planting glorious flowers, as a rupturus break from the last fifty-one non-floriferous years, was just too much for me. I’ve also never grown many annuals before, which will be a great start for new spots that have been scrub or grass prior. They can hold ground nicely from weed until it can all be turned in again at season’s end, to plant the longer term residents in 2019. One of the most delightful flower beds I saw while in England, was an unusual and striking “Medieval Mix” of annuals. I bought two packages while there to add to the excess I just ordered.

As a child, I remember dog eared seed catalogues lying about our winter home, and a few of those fond familiar names have risen in my life again. They were institutions, because I was a child and they were in print, and we never saw where the catalogues descended from.  When I moved my urban life from Toronto to Hamilton at just under fifty, the psychological transition was seamless. Both international populations, both hip, and aside from the very peculiar Hamilton conservatism in left-leaning voters, and the unpleasant macho attributes of the physicality of the city, I still felt at home. But it was a real shock to me after some months, to realize that I was now surrounded by some of the vast greenhouses and fields full of roses, seed houses, tree and flower farms of my childhood memories, and by many more that were new to me. I drive to them. I meet the hard working people behind the catalogues. And William Dam Seeds is one of those. It still is a marvel to me to be able to pull my trunk up to the bare root twiggy roses at Hortico I’ve just had someone take a shovel to, in the field right in front of me, full of other twiggy stunted cold roses. Or to speak to a head rose buyer, who used to advise the same for the Shaw of Iran, then walk aisle upon aisle at Connon Nurseries, amidst landscapers choosing trolleys full of single species, for a public park, or a client’s new garden.  Humber Nurseries we used to stop at nearly every trip north as a youth to the farm from Toronto. I will still drive the hour each way there to choose just the perfect coloured Iris, where I can touch the bloom, smell its fragrance, or ask some staff brave enough to say “I don’t really know,” if they don’t really know. That RARELY happens elsewhere, I can assure  you.

There are gaps. Toronto’s beloved Cruickshank’s on Mt. Pleasant Avenue, closed in 2001, and they are still missed. I cannot find from anyone else, prepared bulbs to force into Christmas bloom indoors. I cannot find the beautiful forcing vases either, though I’ve managed to persuade a few oddly made Pilsner glasses into the job. And I have my own hate list, for those nurseries that have staff that don’t know their plants, don’t tell the truth over the phone and cause an entire lost day for me, and nursery buyers that won’t buy anything they haven’t always bought on mass. O.K. the prime suspect is Terra. Their jewellery section is larger than their plant knowledge. Even their pots are ugly.  And they are just up the road. And down the road. And across the road. I see red.

On the subject of red, I have ordered. It will be a busy summer. Blues near the barn, reds and yellows in the farm yard, and new fruit trees beyond it.

And the lovely mushin no shin (無心の心) inducing lavender to line the roadway.

Image result for lavender lane

A Spud in Time Saves Nine

Day 9: The opportunity to play in the muck with no adult apologies is one of the most beautiful reasons to garden. Another is the opportunity to experiment with the wild, wonderful and superlative. Today was spud order day. Red, blue, white and gold, I’ll have them all if I can keep the Colorado Potato Beetle at bay.

Since I really don’t know a great potato from an average one yet, I ordered from Canada’s prime organic spud expert – all the way from Alberta. You know, the province of the “NDP” Bitumen Queen? Well, Albertans can’t all be as out of date as she is. I’ve had my eyes (ha) on Eagle Creek Seed Potatoes ( Finally, I’ll get to trial some of the best and strangest there is to grow, to see what’s best for me. Amarosa (above), for red chips. French fingerling frites – voila!

German Butterball for all occasions but one: the sad and lonely rice day.

Russian Blue in honour of my beloved, dark visioned Isaac Babel.

I’ll potentially have the first steaming on plates for my daughter’s early July birthday. The last, could remain stored until a year from now. I may need to buy shares in the butter industry.

450 Lavender and a Laneway

Days 7 and 8: Part of the freedom of research, is being able to keep ALL possibilities nurtured with equal stagnation. Though they are notoriously difficult to germinate and grow from seed, with courage, decisiveness, and two years of mulling behind me, by the kitchen sink in Hamilton, I have just over-seeded 450 lavender. Three days in the fridge first, then into moistened seeding mix placed in a warm spot under lights for months. Don’t let me down, YouTube.

450 Lavender

If successful at rearing any of it to outdoor transplant date, in addition to defining the upcoming “Paradise Garden” segments, it will serve as companion to a new 1/2 mile low cedar double hedge made of indigenous transplants, that will run up the roadway from front gate to farm yard. Lavender benefit from but don’t require deadheading: this fact has eliminated other long considered options.

You can see that gentrification will take time.

Laneway 2014

The laneway should eventually feel somewhat like this, alas without being level.


The lavender I’ll run along the inside of the evergreens, the road will be re-gravelled with local limestone.

Lavender rows

And though I flirted for some time with visions of rose edging or hydrangea, both compatible with alkaline soil,

Floral Hedges

the requirement of pruning would intrude on the pleasures at Styx Crossing. Lavender maintenance won’t be a matter of blossom survival and my aim is to demonstrate that less can be more. I must have a productive life beyond the gardening hours.

Along with the very lax timing to start vegetable seeds under lights, until spring planting really, I am now “at ease”.  In the meantime, other plans evolve. My next major outlay could be a modest greenhouse, and I may not even need it this year.

South Yard Egress Plan

The Ides of March approach.

Cherry Picking for Paradise

Day 6: It is mild today, but I don’t think by any stretch could Canadians call this spring. Yet fruit and rose nurseries are selling out lightning fast. One day my computer click for a coveted cherry lands in my “shopping cart”, by the next I must wait until 2019 for another shot at it. For a full forty-eight hours, I was bereft of all prunus cerasus, then discovered Whiffletree Farm and Nursery (.ca), half way up the road in Elora.  I’ve immersed myself in the sharp deadlined education about VVA1s, Krymsk 86s, Lovell or Myrobalans vs. St. Julian or B118s. All roots. Is this a foreign language to you? It means everything to the tree choice and its likelihood of drought or winter survival, its height and production, it’s ability to come to grips with rocky soil, or being espaliered. Image result for image of espalier fanHere below is my first stab at a cloister fruit garden plan, for my thirty-three distinctly European fruits on order. This plan gelled as I took my family turn to keep hospital vigil over my 100 year old mother-in-law recovering from pneumonia in the dark hours. There is no place flat on this land: gradients may defeat the dream, and labour conservation will determine choices for path and quadrant materials. But I am aiming for an elaboration on the ancient Islamic (Achaemenid, Persian) and French models approaching a traditional Paradise Garden.

The devil is in the details still to come.

2018 Cloister Garden

Thyme will surround planting holes. It may not remain this sparse. It will look pathetic and rough for years. I know it will look its best well past my lifetime, perhaps in a hundred years.

But I hope it will provide a brief paradise, for someone.

Happy Family Day

Thirty-Three Fruits

Day 5: Yes, I needed one pear tree. No, it didn’t stop at that. I have become fascinated with the history, symbolism, various root stocks, and nomenclature of the beasts. The French adore their pears, the English their apples and ciders, the Japanese have their own fruit, and old Ontario farm yards are unearthing surprisingly neglected histories surrounding the interrupted arduous journey of Canadian apples. Thankfully, I am not the only one smitten with stories of pippins (“pip of a fruit”) and their stories are written about in all kinds of places, but most importantly in the actions of dedicated breeders who are at last salvaging these nearly lost heritage plants. This spring, I will have planted pears, apples, cherries, plums, quince, plumcots, grapes for the table & pies, and grapes fermented for my goblet.

Thirty-three fruits, to succor my heart and tongue.

In the bitterest of early winter, after my father died, with all the emotional tumult of a death in an already torn apart family, one death crashing into another, one of my first defiant and angry acts of rampage against the victory of death, was to take as much limb death out of the orchard as I possibly could. There was death everywhere, both in my family, and all over the farm.  In the freezing December cold up a ladder with a hack saw in hand, tears streaming down my cheeks, loud rage hitting the skies and sorrow flushed over my cheeks, perched in the place that meant most to my father, I wrote this poem in honour of my dear brilliant unhappy cousin Glen Allen, who has since killed himself.

Another Glen

I am taking death out of the yard

it sounds like birds in the trees

I heard a falcon once

playing like

Glen Gould

or at least

out of his own centre

like another Glen


I heard my daughter studying

the descant of Latin

her test the day

she was dead tired

a long gone language

brought straight to her

from her entire mouth and family

and by not naming living geniuses

– history gone by the wayside


you can’t imagine

she was feeling

that her 17th candle burned like this

droning that memory it had the exuberance

to charm something

off you and Caesar alike


And you can’t imagine what it feels like

to be Bach on the pretty keys

to pretend this lopping procedure is schooled

still on a Baroque tinkling

worship, its devolution of dénouement

of the same intricacy as the poem

that follows the poem

I wrote months before

just after the death of my father

just after he sang Broadway musicals from his oxygen mask

his death bed and before my will

had changed

come alive knowing he had failed

to call for the nurse on time, failed

with dynamic

to utter a thing

To careen for a year

over the anger this man spread


you can imagine Christmas morning

opening a heart attack

you can imagine we all went along

continued all openings and containment

his direction

all wrappings the point of unnaming

any  thing he did


the thing we did

was to leave our reference to the hospital staff

business announced over P.A.

non information but

Dr. So and So to Intensive Care

running carts past the lone blood limb

institutional hum

leaving burial under officious dismissal

standing ignorant at a visitor lounge threshold

as an entire filial relationship

can be institutionalized


in an evening gesture


all of us not knowing

what the man who could face down a three year old

had on his silent tongue had

to keep from

the man who could scream to dawn air

Latin reaming classics

over a dead tongue of prey


I sing a lullaby from a limb

and hope to get sleep

like a genius

hope that the practice

of centurions

will give me flight

over dead keys

Yellow Roses

Day 4: Mingling with the deepest reds I could find, which I posted earlier, these visions of sunlight will adorn and drape overhead between upright posts, as the old cedar hedge comes down. My dad was not a flower guy at all, so I begin at the beginning.

Roald Dahl: Strong tea fragrance, 4ft., repeat bloom.

Image result for Roald dahl rose

Teasing Georgia Climbing: Strong tea fragrance, repeat bloom.

The Pilgrim Climbing: Strong blend of tea, rose and myrrh fragrance. Repeat blooms.

Graham Thomas Climbing: voted the world’s favourite rose, strong tea fragrance with hints of violets, repeat blooms.

Alister Stella Gray Climbing: delicious tea scent, yolk-yellow buds, repeat blooms.

Alister Stella Gray

And one Bourbon for Napolean’s Josephine, to be planted outside the yard near the barn. Souvenir de la Malmaison, climbing up to 20ft. with repeat strongly scented blooms.

Souvenir de la Malmaison



Ugly offspring with a bright future.

DAY 3: Optimism is essential when gardening.  THIS is what my babies will look like when delivered. Just need some mycorrhizal fungi (whoo whoo!) to plant them with. Gardeners are strange. My dad used to load compost in the back of the car whenever we went on family road trips.

THIS will be the ugliness of planting weather, if it’s not also raining.

Team member Seokhyeon Kim uses her soil moisture probe to measure the amount of soil moisture in the ground.

THIS, however, is what my Munstead Wood 3ft shrub will look like when mature, and smelling like heaven (apologies to Sally Cooper).

 “Strong Old Rose fragrance with fruity notes of blackberry, blueberry and damson.” Vase worthy. What more does anyone need? Thank you David Austin, from the bottom of my heart.

I promised you yellow roses, but they will have to wait until tomorrow. I ordered fruit trees today and, would you believe it? It’s February, and many were sold out already.  As I said, gardeners are strange.