Day 56: It 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.
Day 48: Let it be known that at 5pm Eastern Standard Time today May 14 2018, Blue Saphire Iris went in the ground. 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.
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.
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. From 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.
Day 44: When travelling, this expression has a very different meaning. However, the cost of getting 24 pea plants into the May 2018 limestone rocky ground in Bruce County, also protected from groundhogs, is not to be underestimated.
Eleven dollars a pea is what I estimate. It took me several days to be able to say that monumental task was done, two of those days spent just laying out parameters to allow for house expansions. As with most new projects, what I dreamed was simple, is far from that. There was the polypropylene I’d laid down to suppress weeds: free in the back shed or not, I will never use that horrible, slimy, slippery, shredding, environmentally and aesthetically despicable junk again. And not thought through, since the entire garden carries a pronounced slope along its length westward, and any new border hedge will memorialize that slope, the evolution of plans now includes undefined time to terrace the slope. Any hedge to mask animal barriers must wait months to begin. So must laying paths.
Any thought of having the time or energy to amend the soil is laughable at this point. But Ontario appropriate, and well deserved, I sat by seven with a bottle of Black Fly to relax under my newly acquired solar chandelier as the sun set over the chicken wire barrier around 24 two inch plants that hopefully are merely the torch-bearers for a decade of grander things to come.
My back hurt like Hades..
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.
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. I 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. 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. The 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.
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.Though 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.
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 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 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 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.
I 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.
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. 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.
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. Then I mix a solution of watery but still stinky bleach, and wipe down tomato cages, pruning sheers, and trowels. I 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?
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.
And new? My Ellagance Lavender is up! Up up and away! Hidcote, Munstead, and no-name McKenzie seeds, a whole week older, not so much. I 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.
Standard trowels irritate me enormously. Why are they sold with toilet-paper-soft edges?
TOILET PAPER EDGES
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.