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.

Triumph

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

Failure

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.

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.

Tools

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?

TOILET PAPER 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