On Knowing a Thing – Now and Then

“Even to know the common name of a flower or fern is something added to our stock of knowledge, and inclines us to wish to know something beyond the mere name. Curiosity is awakened…”
Catherine Parr-Traill, 1885, Studies of Plant Life in Canada

Apologies to my neighbours but I really must inspect my Hypericum perforatum and don’t forget the Silene vulgaris.  That’s right – I discovered a botanical paradise!  It’s really wild!  And it’s on my leaching field … or thereabouts!

It really explains why a quick look into our yard from the street may result in a vision of a woman with book in hand and camera at the ready, mouthing tongue-tied words familiar yet strange and decidedly Latin. A pagan ritual perhaps?  No, not an incantation to the powers that be (although not a bad idea all-in-all) but a need, a quest to ignore the news of the day and focus down to the ground.

Today in November, I’m back outside in t-shirt and cut-offs as the strange unseasonly warm weather continues. There are however strong rumours of snow later this week which is at distinct odds with the last tomatoes that I’m roasting this morning.  Go figure. 

This particular pandemic pleasure stemmed from the mid-year. July was tough on the land and on us.  We watched the clouds come and go, performed our rain dances and mourned as grass disappeared and leaves began to fall from our Silver Maples, Acer saccharinum. Barrels emptied and decisions were made to only water veg beds as needed. It was hard to watch and hard on one’s mood…everyday. 

And then.  I stopped cringing and looked, really looked at what was growing.  And growing well in this desiccating landscape.  Nature as always, was finding a way to declare itself and it was in the form of wildflowers.  And what are these but an invitation to learn?  Armed with an Ontario Wildflowers book, and a need to focus on what was popping up everywhere, I went to work. Who knew I would also go back in time?

Arriving in 1832, Catherine Parr-Traill, an early pioneer and writer, found green explorations as a means to hang onto her very being in this new world. As she points out in Studies of Plant Life in Canada, 1885, “…I soon found beauties in my woodland wanderings, in the unknown trees and plants of the forest. These things became a great resource, and every flower and shrub and forest tree awakened an interest in my mind, so that I began to thirst for a more intimate knowledge of them. They became like dear friends, soothing and cheering, by their sweet unconscious influence, hours of loneliness and hours of sorrow and suffering.” She was onto something – a marvelous distraction – and just what I needed.

I knew there would be some wilding happening as on the roadside I could see Queen Anne’s Lace, Daucus carota, which easily could provide a shady, lacy umbrella for chipmunk or rabbit or fairy, springing up alongside beautiful blue Chicory, Cichorium intybus, which tempted me to indulge in a coffee – or at least in this coffee substitute.

The garden already had already showcased Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, to entice the Monarchs to land and transform; the long pointers of Great Mullein, Verbascum Thapsus, that when dried and dipped in tallow became a torch in days gone by; and the ever present Orange Daylily, Hemerocallis fulva, that shared space with purply Creeping Bellflowers, Campanula rapunculoides. A riot of plants right where we didn’t plant them! Amazing.

Now that I think of it, what a perfect summer moment and one I’ll revisit during upcoming winter days.  They are also intimately tied to the memories of childhood and running free to pick bouquets to be jammed into mason jars on a windowsill and admired. Move over African violet – we picked this! I remember the succinct pop of the Bladder Campion, Silene vulgaris, as my brother and I popped their full blooms against the back of our hands. And the Common Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, which meant sitting down in the grass and blowing the seeds that seemed like fairies flying on the breeze.  Haven’t done that in ages although I have thought of dandelion summer wine and crisp greens with odd shapes in salad bowls.

All this to say, I have now strategically added a new list of things to explore in this pandemic winter. Green explorations and those women who have taken it to different levels – a penultimate pandemic pastime to link today and yesterday. Among other things. According to the dictates of the day.

Botanic treasures found this year (so far):

Black eyed Susans blooming.
  • Black-eyed Susan – Rudbeckia hirta
  • Bladder Campion – Silene vulgaris
  • Chicory – Cichorium intybus
  • Common Dandelion – Taraxacum officinale
  • Common Milkweed – Asclepias syriaca
  • Common St. John’s Wort – Hypericum perforatum
  • Creeping Bellflowers – Campanula rapunculoides
  • Great Mullein – Verbascum Thapsus
  • Orange Daylily – Hemerocallis fulva
  • Orange Hawkweed – Hieracium aurantiacum
  • Oxeye Daisy – Leucanthemum vulgare
  • Philadelphia Fleabane – Erigeron philadelphicus
  • Pineapple Weed – Matricaria dissoidea
  • Scentless Chamomile – Tripleurospermum perforata
  • Queen Anne’s Lace – Daucus carota

The Nature of Soup

Definition of soup:
1: a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food
2: something having or suggesting the consistency or nutrient qualities of soup
3: an unfortunate predicament
– Merriam-Webster online

Soup in bowls

I want to talk to you about the nature of soup. Soup is that noisy mingling of kitchen chat and chop – an emotional pull to the table through time.  Soup is a mighty coalescence of taste, memory, place and people. 

Not too long ago the harvest was done and it was time for a tasty transformation of veg into soup. I looked at the herbs from the garden on our kitchen windowsill and the thick kale leaves drying in the strainer.  But then a redirect, not unusual these days, as thoughts turned to past gatherings and how they’re just not happening anymore, and probably not for awhile.

Soup has always been part of our garden celebrations.  I mean really, what’s easier than heating up some water, throwing in something, or many somethings, and calling it a meal? Maybe you have a recipe, maybe not – but it’ll work and people will connect. It makes you wonder how long as a species we’ve had the need, as essentially insular beings, to convene and just to be in company with others? 

For the past three winters, every Wednesday in February and March, we hosted a mid-week mulling over soup. We limited the gathering to six people to both ensure that all could fit around the wooden table and that everyone could take part in the conversation.  When I think about it, we had actually managed to hold one this year – in February 2020 – you know, before the gathering world was put on hold.

Kale leaves
Kale

To keep it easy, I used a favourite recipe from Moosewood, Portuguese Kale with White Beans, mingled with homemade vegie broth.  Yes, the same recipe every week – think of it as my little tradition.

The pot, gleaming in silver shininess and large in potential, was brought out the night before and placed just so on the front burner. Early morning on the day of the Event, the sun-dried tomatoes would be soaked; onion and garlic would be diced; fennel, carrots, potatoes, and kale chopped; white beans drained; and best of all, the finishing fragrances of fennel seed, thyme and pepper measured out.  It was a satisfying mise-en-place that had us poised for a great, tasty day when our focus could be just on those gathered around the table. We hope it was memorable because at its most basic level, soup is a touchstone for memory.

As a child of the 60’s, soup generally meant it conveniently arrived ready-to-go in a Campbell’s soup can, offered up with sliced, white bread and margarine on the side.  The only exception was in the winter months when homemade pea soup was all the rage at home in Montreal North. How easy to remember the sounds of people and place, easy to pull up the memories of knowing we had food to eat and all was good.

Sorrel in the vegetable garden
Sorrel – Shchavel

For my partner, soup was a cultural tradition – borscht!  Deep, rich, red hues filled bowls along with a dollop of sour-cream and a pinch of fresh dill that began oh-so-many Ukrainian family gatherings.  With an eye to continuity, I would learn to make this over the years from books like Baba’s Kitchen and through innumerable variations found online. 

Soup became personally surprising to this gardener – like realizing the green leaves of sorrel, Rumex acetosa, at the very edge of the vegie garden were nothing less than the very plant – shchavel – that my partner’s grandma used when he was a very young boy.  Shchavel borscht, a tangy green soup, gave reason for us to talk about growing up and the ghosts of childhood that will follow us for a lifetime.

Creating times to be together, to have a conversation with those here or not, all around the simple excuse of a soup. Maybe my thoughts that day wandered towards memory due to the seemingly unending grey skies heavy with the first, early winter snow.  Or maybe the way the damp days worked into my arthritic bones.  Maybe I was lonely and missing all those who once sat at our table in a tangy broth of conversation.  Soup seemed like both a saving grace at the time and a strategy for the future.

So go on. Grab a pot, splash in some water, put things into it – many things – enjoy it now or freeze it for the future. Rest assured, the table will fill again, and that table just might be here online.  For now.

Understory – Late Autumn Daze

Nothing Gold Can Stay – by Robert Frost, 1923

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Tops of trees without leaves against a grey sky.

The sky is grey and rain cascades like a watery veil down from gutters where too many maple leaves have come to roost.  My tendency would be to despondency as the green season is most definitely passing but when my eyes are drawn down, I see a carpet of rich gold across the landscape. If you really try, the colour wraps us in a final shout-out of beauty. Yes, look for the sublime in the everyday. 

Forest with leaves on the ground.

My mood though is compounded by the awareness that Phase Two of the pandemic is upon us and the coming winter will be tough in so many ways.  Tough in that we’re still pummeling a virus curve against the dreaded outcomes of COVID; that we’re holding onto hope by not hugging each other; that we’re closing in our social circles because we care so very much. And we do care.

This morning I heard an interview on CBC with Tim Robbins (loved his Shawshank Redemption role!) about a new project where he and his team are exploring how to create a community online to affirm we are sane in interesting and turbulent times – COVID and political. He’s adamant that this time ought to be looked at as an opportunity for creative incubation. “I think it’s important that we create forums of communities where you can listen to something, you can laugh and you can understand you’re not alone,” he said.  Well, I like that! Welcome back to the blog-a-sphere! (OK, he was talking about podcasts but moving along…)

Grey cat on laptop keyboard.

Ahem. A slight narrative deviation – apologies. As much as I’d like to mope and wax poetic about the emotional turmoil of grey daze, my constant feline companion and apparently editor, Furgus, is saying it’s purr-fect.  In fact, he may indeed take over the typing of this very post – with cats, one can never really know.

Onto the green reaping that has led me to think that incubation will indeed develop into taste-filled winter nights where we will relax and enjoy any sublime moment at hand.

Case in point – I’m perfumed! The smell of mint is on my hands and stitched fragrantly throughout my clothing. I’ve pulled out hunks of leaves from three medium-sized pots that had basked all summer against an east facing brick wall. Ok – it’s true – these lovelies were deliberately corralled by me in terracotta pots as they are notorious for spreading their mint-ness throughout the garden if left in the ground. Delicious fiends! Now the peppermint, Mentha x piperita; chocolate, Mentha × piperita “chocolate”; and Mojito mints – Mentha x villosa, have been chopped into small pieces, encased with water in ice cube trays and slipped into the freezer. Phase Two winter months were just made more palatable with green sunshine in a tiny block of ice!  Fun to think about who would enjoy these treasures with us – oh, that will be us. Well then, all good.

You know there’s no story without an understory, right?  That freezer was an adventure – an unanticipated purchase due to a great harvest brought about by an intense COVID homestay. An intense homestay for months where we watched every growth spurt, every fruiting.  We were so glad we had basic arithmetic skills and determined that the cost for the freezer was justified as it cost less than than that terrific road trip we had planned for the eastern coast of Canada this year. As the times had appliances like freezers coming up short on the display floors, we were thrilled to find one – still in its cardboard box – kind of waiting for us at the local hardware emporium.  We quick-stepped gleefully out to the rented van to ensure the freezer was ours and ours alone. Warning. Do not get between a gardener, worried about a most excellent harvest, and her desired storage unit!

The freezer interior has transformed into a treasure chest of green memories…er…anticipation. Must stay future focused! Soon, very soon, it will hold most of the green tomatoes I shook off the desiccating vines of summer.  Leaving them longer on the vine made no sense with frost threatening, flurries foretold, and energies waning.  The squares of cilantro, Coriandrum sativum, are frozen in extra virgin olive oil with garlic and honestly, can you imagine the sizzle from that frying pan as the snow comes down outside? The flattened bags tempt with deep red hues – roasted tomatoes processed with sweet basil, Ocimum basilicum, and rosemary, Salvia rosmarinus, while other containers hold whole and cubed red tomatoes. The green icy mounds are peppers chopped and ready for a soup or stir fry. Sage, Salvia officinalis, is now drying on a pantry knob while oregano, Origanum vulgare, will soon join it. What a potential explosion of taste just waiting for creative cookery magic and deep winter nights. Cucina Italiana feasts?  Bring ‘em on!

Those nights when the fire is on, the ice lining the edge of the window and the hooks near the back door holding damp toques, mitts, scarves and, well you know, masks. Those nights are when I’ll close my eyes and taste the green season again and maybe, just maybe, wax poetic about gardening daze and marvel at the ability of memory to ignore the twinge in the knee and the ache in the back.  And maybe, just maybe, I’ll celebrate the surrounding community and those away at two-arms length or more. We know we’re not alone in this time, we’re just developing a new way of being for all of us. For now.

Mirrored hat rack with COVID masks hanging in centre.

Thanks-be-given

The holiday is an embracing of a successful harvest, community and gratitude. How could this not appeal this year in particular, and indeed every year?

Here in eastern Ontario, Thanksgiving Day opened onto a cool, bright morning. The farmer across the road was bringing in the soy crop and we were treated to the dust of a good harvest wafting over the hedge, the sun dancing gleefully through the haze.  There is no Hallmark card for the moment. 

Pumpkins and gourds on table

Thanksgiving is my favourite celebration. No festooning of trees, no retail mayhem, no incessant saccharine music in every store.  There are no pressures of gifting except the most essential gift of time and companionship – easily shared. The holiday is an embracing of a successful harvest, community and gratitude.  How could this not appeal this year in particular, and indeed every year?

The shadows of this pandemic and political time were swept aside by the chickadees, nuthatches, cardinals and blue jays on the feeders, by the perfection of a morning, by the choice we made to focus this day on the greater garden around us. 

The ways of sharing felt different this year – electronic pulses more than elbows nudging over a good joke. Early morning there was a crop of well-wishers on social media – the newer, electronic garden where words replace touch and proximity.  Only a brief sadness settled in when the distance between sender and sendee was thought about, even as we smiled at the 10 – 100 joyful words on laptop and phone screens. To be read and re-read again.

Sunny day with families safely distanced
Wood piles with hay and pumpkins

Next was a road trip to a local tree farm.  There pancakes were expertly flipped to order on the outside porch and maple syrup from this year’s arboreal haul was poured liberally – much to the delight of the small swarm of wasps entranced by the sweet temptation.  But no garden is without bugs, birds and blooms – they are all intimately interconnected. Children played on hay bales, flew through the air suspended on a line from one pillar to another to the delight of a puppy who stared and stared, parents stood by masked and sharing plans for the dinners they would have later.  We watched it all and warmed to the companionship of others – a garden of fellows on this holiday in isolated times.

We left with treasure stuffed deep into a paper bag – homemade jams and a huge bottle of local maple syrup, ‘cause knowing the maker just means a sweeter experience all around.  Three would be for friends – strawberry jam to a senior neighbour on the street who has treated me to tea and stories of a life well lived; Toe Jam to a friend who shares humour, politics and furry companions; and Middle Age Spread (lemon and orange) that waits on a sideboard for another who shares many adventures with us. Sweet delights to cultivate the garden of friendship.

Crystal vase filled with maple leaf branches

The dinner table – set for we two – was festooned with maple leaves on their woody stems placed just so in a crystal vase from my mum, now gone, while the meal was an amalgam of delights from local entrepreneurs.  It was a decision to fill the table with all that was tasty from those local business owners who have had to navigate this unique year in new and different ways. Roasted veg, garlic mashed potatoes, lentil loaf, hand pies baked resplendent with mushroom filling and turkey with stuffing. All this nudging up against red and green lettuce from our garden that keeps on giving even in the cooling air, whose leaves mark the plenty that was grown. And to end it all, a perfectly seasoned pumpkin pie from our local baker, complete with a pastry pumpkin placed precisely in the very centre allowing thick whipped cream to encircle it in a caloric hug. This meal was not the first where we celebrated the gifts of others, nor would it be the last. We raised a toast and gave thanks for living in a vibrant, creative community which will make it through whatever times are ahead.  

Throughout it all, each hour of this day, we thought of times shared with friends and family, so glad for those moments stored deep inside to be looked at and relived, whenever needed.  Our personal garden of memory and an appetite for more!

Painted signpost against a tree saying: Enjoy a season of change!

And as it must, so the day ended and the sun began to sink behind the cedar hedge in the west. 

The silver and red maples in front of our dining room seemed to stretch out each leaf before they tumbled to the ground in a glowing curtain.  A fitting moment, nature saying time is right to face a change in season and to be grateful for this day – this thanks-be-given day.

October Rising

Anne reveled in the world of colour about her. “Oh, Marilla,” she exclaimed one Saturday morning, coming dancing in with her arms full of gorgeous boughs, “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it?” Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables, 1908

Do you feel it? The change is here – a frisson at the edge of the breeze, a turning of the leaf from green to red to gold, from lush to dry. Pumpkins running amok in fields and offered up on trailers at the side of a rural road.  Woodsmoke. A seasonal move from cotton to wool. Knitting needles. Socks. Autumn. Really big birds.

Honestly, this is one of my favourite seasons – ok, there are three more and that about covers them all. Autumn in eastern Ontario (let’s not call it The Fall – not this year of all years!) is when no permission is needed to be in awe of the beauty of plants, of pending change, of story. 

We begin to bundle up in familar ways to face the cooling days. This year however, COVID has added another layer to the ones we put on and it’s a difficult fit.  It feels like the freedom some of us had in working in a garden, spending time in the fresh air, will be severely limited with the swing of the weather vane and the north wind. 

North wind, eh?  Moving along, I’ll focus on the time being right for splitting plants and spinning tales. I like the botanical conversations that will continue from our space to another. The trail of a story about what the thing is, where it came from, how it got there, where it might go.

Dwarf irises, Iris pumila, came to us from a small acreage on a nearby rural route ten years ago.  A very full garden tempted us to walk in when we saw a sign, Perennials for sale – well! Pots were filled and instructions told – this is what worked here, it will work there and how.  Much appreciated.  Recently I divided the rhizomes as they had spread nicely on the edge of a bed and needed to find new homes.  They became part of a boxful of splits that ended up on a table at the local horticultural society plant sale recently – an exchange of plants in the company of others. A gleeful moment when my broad smile hid behind yet another new mask donned for the occasion.

Last week as the peonies went dormant, the garden fork came out again and after a quick split of tangled Peony rhizomes, Paeonia, voila – five potted plants for sharing with friends. A little bit of Mrs. B. went with them. Now, now, nothing suspect here, I meant her spirit. Mrs. B. was the head gardener in the family who lived here before we moved in and must have planted the peony at least five years before – now a mature plant about 25 years old!  I love the flamboyant blooms in late Spring and the dramatic drop of flowers and petals with the first rain – appeals to my romantic inclination. And so the new progeny travelled to the big city, to a local shop owner, to friends – a story continues. I’m eyeing the line of browning foliage now of peonies that need their annual haircut – a pruning back before the, gulp, snow.

Visitors always know they just may leave with something green when they come by for a conversation on the deck or a dinner in the garden (yes, yes, even now at an appropriate distance and peeking over a mask edge.)  Native Solomon’s Seal, Polygonatum pubescens, were started here 15 years ago – a mere three wild plants had been removed from a roadside that was slated for development.  Now they gracefully circle two maple trees and in the spring a riot of white pendules bob from each plant – over a hundred of them.  An impressive growth habit for this beautiful structural, arching plant. Always fun to see them nodding through a back window of a car as it heads home from our driveway.  Note to self: always ask if the plants being so willingly given away, do they spread well?  Bugleweed, Ajuga, anyone? Here, this particular chapter of a story is always shared from gifter to giftee.

But today I stare at the fading beauties of this season through my east-facing window.  Down a stone path, far from the vegie beds, the last Oscar Peterson roses play a jazzy tune against Japanese Anemones, Anemone hupehensis, that stand tall on the breeze.  The purple and yellow audacity of a much-too-tropical Coleus brushes against the green boxwood, Buxus, as if to say “good-bye” after sharing space all season.  Annuals can make you downright emotional at the beginning of autumn don’t you think? Say no more.

I take the time to look up. High above this place, I see the great birds, Canada Geese in a distinct V formation – they rise with feathers beating against the chilling air.  They wheel and honk, lifted and drawn southwards by some ancient rite acting along their nerve endings.  Some may fall with a well placed shot.  But in the greatest triumph those flying highest and determined, divide the clouds and continue.

The overpowering feeling is farewell and fare well.

I split the plants, plant the bulbs and wonder.  Green will come again in its time and the feathers beating against the warming air will welcome in spring. I hope there are no more threats, I hope we all rise high and find a place to soar. Fare well.

Photo by TheOther Kev on Pexels.com

Seed for thought

We all know how much nations, communities and neighbours need us these days – maybe saving seed is the most patriotic act of a common humanity we can have.

I had a wonderful coffee last week with a “green” friend which ended happily with us touring her garden. This was perfect as isn’t it the best of all things to nurture and cultivate a space then to share it in some way, or two? Bliss.

But what stopped me in my explorations were these dark, purply round fruit hanging down from withering late-summer stems in large pot.  Were they mini-eggplants?  This of course caused me a moment of real irritation as my eggplants had teased me all summer by producing gorgeous flowers and then…nothing.  But that’s another story.

That feeling quickly dissipated as knowledge was enthusiastically shared over a growing bed – a most excellent habit of gardeners! My friend introduced me to a Blueberry Tomato, Solanum lycopersicum “blueberry”.  Wow!  And that maybe, just maybe, it actually punched higher by weight than actual blueberries in antioxidants. What!?  When, oh when, does the global garden stop amazing us? I left with a small orb of possibility in my pocket – a mini-tomato whose seeds are being dried and stored for next year’s garden. A grand experiment on my part which got me thinking about the littlest of things that we share from our own gardens – seeds and neighbourly connections.

I have great faith in a seed.  Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.

Henry David Thoreau, The Dispersion of Seed 1860-61

My first seed encounter was in the backyards of Montreal North where I grew up.  A culturally rich WWII community – immigrants from Europe and us, Canadian anglophones and francophones – all living in duplexes and triplexes overlooking yards where neighbours chatted in accented excitement over long wooden fences.  My mom loved that back balcony as it gave her the ability to watch over not just the two of us, my brother and me, but those neighbourhood gardens that rose from warmer climes and traditions.  They stood apart from ours with its one Maple tree and sprawling play area, as those other places were lush with a hands-on take on how to provide food for families. And roses.

In those gardens, the seasons would be marked by seedlings that had been nurtured through the late winter months, whose bright shoots were tied to poles in regular rows culminating in time to a tasty burst of harvest. A great botanical gathering gave rise to the rolling sound of wine casks emerging from basements and the aroma of tomato sauce thickening on stovetops.  Sauce that had a bold tendency to dance a quick step up the stairs, over the balcony and into our kitchen. Recipes followed as the fence-talk continued.

Once the cooking frenzy was over there was another domestic science experiment going on and it too rolled out in basements.  My neighbour, an immigrant from Italy, knew I was a curious kid and took me down the stairs to that family’s basement one perfect day.  There, spread out on brown paper, were hundreds of tomato seeds that had been sorted to type, dried and would be stored for next summer’s promise. The garden brought a curious community together, built on the experience of the past and kept in high regard the potential of seed – a knowing that my neighbour finetuned by observing year-to-year.

Seed is amazing. At the most basic level, viable seed means we’re ensuring the continuation of the wide variety of plant species and of global food sources.  Everything is held within the seed – an embryonic plant mapped by DNA, supported with protein and starch. Think about it – everything needed for the processes of germination, vegetation and reproduction is tucked into these distinct, botanical packages.  Along with that, we’re also saving the memory of people and plants we have known intimately as we sowed, germinated and waxed poetic about the plants outside.

Seeds and the importance of ensuring that our shared agricultural and botanical history – and future – are saved, takes place through our own garden seed saving from each season to the next, but on larger scales as well. Massive projects save seeds from all over the world such as the Crop Trust Global Seed Vault in the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago – also known as the  Doomsday vault – or through not-for-profits like Seeds of Diversity in Canada. Mind-boggling.

When you save a seed, you save so much more than just a memory from last year’s garden, you hold a unique, biological being – a proto-plant in your hand.  Here life begins and when the growth cycle continues to a logical conclusion, the future is ensured by seed.

In the Book of Seeds, Paul Smith says: “For people, mastering the storage and manipulation of dormant seeds paved the way for agriculture and continues to determine the fate of nations.” We all know how much nations, communities and neighbours need us these days – maybe saving seed is the most patriotic act of a common humanity we can have. Sounds a lot like hope doesn’t it?

Simply Sempervivum

“In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.” Aristotle, 384–322 BC

Life is about the details – around us, above us and often, below us.  There’s something about a walk, say in a garden, where you just might question if it’s in the inherent physics of plants to make us stoop over a leaf or bloom and for an instant, get lost in the wonder of a growing thing.  We just may need to find wonder more and more these days – a fascination in the smallest of things or the value someone else puts on them. 

Case in point, I now have an obsession with Sempervivums.

Sempervivum!  Imagine a dirt encrusted guerilla gardener holding a trowel high overhead, balancing a few green gems in her other hand, and marching towards a drying landscape, a pot, or a boot. Ok, maybe too dramatic but this plant is a survivor – I like that.

There is such beauty in the structure of these botanic stars. Makes you think of geometric symmetries, Fibonacci sequencing, abstract art – plants often have a great way of distracting you from the everyday and I know we need that from time-to-time.

Naturally, there is a story. I grew up listening to my mum talking affectionately about “hens and chicks” and considered this a decidedly strange term, an oddity of another gardening generation. But when we found our home, there they were, succulent green stars tucked between stones – not quite twinkling but definitely in a northern universe of their own.  I was forever hooked. I now know that mum was enchanted by them too – obviously genetic.

Sempervivum means “always living”, so poetic isn’t it? The botanical name is the fundamental hint that these plants are survivors.  Also known as houseleeks, they’re succulents in that they hold water and will work well in sites that are drier than most and freely drain – hence the use in rockeries, among others. And if you really love them, you can even pot them up for indoor enjoyment.

One interesting history of the plant, and a possible source for the houseleek nomenclature, was a traditional use of tucking them between roof shingles to prevent lightning strikes, fires – apparently all things risky. Hmmm – have you read the news these daze? Might check to see if there is room on the roof for one or two or….?

Sempervivium insists that you slow your pace, that you bend down low and admire the myriad designs the rosettes make. There you can see how the chicks, or offsets, grow from the edges to form a mat or, when broken off, start a new planting on their own.

Offsets in the offing – and so the garden grows.

Like most plants, people seem either to love them or hate them. Did you guess I’m in the love camp?

There’s another perspective however. I know this as a former colleague once lamented about how her husband would pull them out of their garden and toss the small botanic packages over the fence . His goal? To remove their very offensive presence. Hmmm. Lucky neighbour methinks.

The flipside of this view was evident a few years back when we visited Enlgand. A friend and I, having not realized that Vita Sackville West’s garden was closed that day (note to self – check before  you wander), were redirected and headed to Great Dixter in Rye, East Sussex. Gobsmacked by the story of the place and the creative gardening influence of Christopher Lloyd, we wandered for hours – that magic pull of gardens and plants again! Eventually we stumbled on two young gardeners, maybe students, kneeling on a stone patio delicately placing what must have been hundreds of these garden stars as a planned design element of the garden.  It was magic, the interplay of soft colours making a living quilt in the slanted sunshine. And it didn’t end there, Sempervivums also popped up in crockery and between the roof tiles. 

Here, on a late summer day this year, I visited a local farm to buy a perfect bouquet from a gal who had adapted her retail activity when COVID limited the use of market stalls, to her floral enticements being offered up in a weathered barn. Around the edge of the building and along a path, there were the succulent beauties brimming out of an old boot, further down out of a shoe.  Magic again and oh-so-appropriate for hens and chicks.

Later this week, I’ll share a coffee with a local Lanark County Master Gardener who is known for her specialisation in succulents.  Friendships can form over green pursuits if you let them, and in so doing add yet another invaluable dimension to the scope of a garden. We’ll chat, compare pandemic pastimes no doubt, then root the conversation in tales about hens and chicks, stones and boots.

A small thing. A beautiful thing. Keep looking – maybe that’s just what we need now and anytime.

A harvest of crabby delight

You just know there could be orchards of goodness out there waiting for the child in you to come out to play.

Like most of us in this pandemic year, we look for new pastimes – a means to find moments of joy in difficult times.  With the cooling of the season and yes, the turning of the first leaves to autumn gold and red, it means embracing a sense of adventure – one that mingles community with taste!

Case in point – crab apples, Malus.  This town, on the edge of wild, is home to many a crab apple tree.  Many are beloved. Most of the year, after the riot of spectacular spring blooms have faded, you wouldn’t even notice them but come September, well.  Red and yellow fruit brighten against the green leaves in private yards, lining streets, and on the edges of woodlands where their perfume bounces on the breeze.  A scent of – is it cider? – wafts down the streets and tempts passersby. You just know there could be orchards of goodness out there waiting for the child in you to come out to play.

The immediate result here? We played! And right there, on our back deck, beside the painted red rocking chair, a large basket brimming with fruit from two crab apple trees, Malus ‘Dolgo’.

We hadn’t really noticed them until a gardening friend (thanks Allan!) sent an email suggesting we enjoy the bounty from trees he had planted in the community.  Sounded like a fine idea and we wandered over one afternoon eager for a harvest – although honestly unsure what the ultimate result would be.  

Did I mention we were new to this?

Must confess, we didn’t realize we were looking at apple trees at all.  In fact, we were convinced that the apple tree that we were looking for must be hidden behind these plum trees – so thick they were with small fruit.  It only took one bite to push plums out of our minds and to recognize the small, sweet-tart rounds of luscious crab apples! Fast forward – the basket on the deck.

Within the course of a few days, and a well-placed Facebook post, suggestions gleefully flowed for pies, dried fruit, applesauce, apple butter, apple jelly – all shared with the excitement of well practiced tastes.  This was rapidly followed by offers of hand cranked food processors, jelly jars and in one case, of an actual taste tester. The generosity of garden folk was so appreciated when we realized that this simple act of apple transformation into imagined winter delights was going to take some learning.

Now, somewhere in the depths of the pantry we had stored a box of canning jars. The idea had entered our minds years ago but over time the jars had become candles holders, impromptu vases, dust collectors. However, we did have a large pot, a hand crank food processor, and new lids. There was also the seemingly infinite reams of advice on the web, in cookbooks and through the freely shared experiences of friends pulled into kitchens by harvest delights.

These common apples, as they were once known, could have become so many things from jams to pies. But for us, through the shared experiences of those who succumb to the temptations of apples – move over Eve – we washed and we boiled, we strained and we canned. It was the best of times – who knew?

Now we smile to think that downstairs, on shelves tucked against a wall, the dark shadows obscure the rich red of crab apple sauce and crab apple jelly that wait to help us make it through winter, then spring. Once there, the lovely trees will bloom again, a cycle of green, and of friendship, leading us forward to the delights of new days – embracing the bitter and the sweet.

Growing a peopled place

And the story is told that friendship and green learning is a many layered, ongoing adventure best shared both in quiet contemplation and in the company of others – leafy or otherwise.

Friendship is the invisible ally of gardens, either given freely or sought. 

Marigolds wrapped in a succulent hug

This weekend, a friend came by with a bright, tight bundle of French Marigolds, Tagetes patula. I know this was a special offering as she had grown them in a thick patch from seeds that another friend had given her.  And so we continue an unending circle of garden stories.

Gardens have a way of attracting people – all kinds of people – green people who have plants and stories to share.  I’m one of those now.  It isn’t unusual in the growing season for the end of our driveway to have a series of pots or cut flowers being offered free to a growing home.  Honestly, that’s the sign that I put up beside the offerings so that no one feels anxious when running away with one, two or three. Seeds are shared, plants provided, conversation ensues – often over years. 

Now that I think about it, it would be hard to leave this garden as there are so many footprints of others so well rooted here.  That sprawling mugo pine, Pinus mugo?  The first plant we put in when we bought our home – a gift of love from my mother. I prune it back each year it’s true, but gently.

The lilacs, Syringa?  Well, my gift to Pete of course so he could have sweet smelling shade to enjoy in future years.  That deep purple one?  A planted memory for a friend now gone.

The glossy mat of blue periwinkle, Vinca major? A spreading memory of another who was celebrating the adoption of her baby daughter.  Invasive?  Always risky but not here – it spreads slowly and is well managed by this gardener.

A welcome annual to wrap around a heart – Morning Glory

Those blue flowers scrambling up the wood support of the birdhouse, those lovely unending trumpets and heart-shaped leaves of Morning Glories, Ipomoea? Planted knowing they are loved by a friend now in the city.

Sharing could be as easy as someone coming over unbeknownst to us and planting something in on of our beds.  Guerilla gardeners. Right there, beside the small pond, I now have the dark leaves of the Leopard plant, Ligularia dentata, complementing the riot of day lilies, hostas, sedum and astilbe – it blooms a bright orange in this semi-shade garden and flowers later in the season.  That same friend also gifted me with a tall, stately Fairy Candle or Black Cohosh plant – a name much more interesting than Bugbane.  Did either one of us know the name of the handsome plant? No, it would take another friend, a horticulturalist, who came by and casually asked if I’d smelt the wonderful perfume of my Black Snakeroot, Actaea racemosa .  So much to learn!

A garden is not a place. It’s a journey.

Monty Don

The garden grows through the generosity of others. However, fair warning, that even friendship might go a bit too far when sharing plants that climb, clamour and root far and wide. Much like our Bugleweed, Ajuga, or as I should have known by the charming local name of Marching Soldiers, we realized after the fact that it had a rambunctious nature – but we learn.

The garden grows in spite of this pandemic year and offers up a space for repose. And the story is told that friendship and green learning is a many layered, ongoing adventure best shared both in quiet contemplation and in the company of others – leafy or otherwise.

Lovely Ligularia offers dramatic leaf colour and shape

Foundations of this place

The property has become a welcome green hug in this time of pandemic and may just be the best distraction there is.

It’s raining today, yay!  I’m at the computer, staring out the window, when I’m pulled into memory of this place – and it’s green.

Green, in my mind, is about nature and gardening – cultivating land, community and story. Going into the green means developing an interesting relationship with something bigger than ourselves and engaging with a community way wider than our own reach.  It involves not just the big picture but the small, the pleasure of slowing down to meet the timetables of seasons, to pause and see.  It means constantly learning and being open to the experiences of plants and the people who tend them. 

It’s been 21 years since we moved here and I value the moments I can just breathe, focus on a season, a plant, a bird, or animal.  The property has become a welcome green hug in this time of pandemic and may just be the best distraction there is.  21 years ago we kept a wary eye on YK2, this year – well – we’re still waiting to see how the impact of COVID-19 will all work out.

2.06 acres on a corner lot and all with fine, green bones. After World War II, the original owners had purchased a larger lot of land – three sections in all – and over the course of a lifetime, raising children and working, they had planted.  There had been a calculating, creative gaze cast over the planting of this former farm field at some point and the map of trees, windbreaks, planting beds and garden structures were evidence of it.  Our land – or the land that we now inhabit – was the second home to this hybrid couple of Canada and England.  It was all quite amazing that it then passed into the hands of an urban couple who, at best, had grown four, maybe five, hostas in the suburbs. 

A large portion of the perimeter is a vast cedar hedge and provides privacy.  Maples – silver, sugar, and Manitoba – are also scattered over the land joined by balsam, spruce, and pine.  We were so lucky in those first years to find a young fellow in town who mapped out and identified all the trees for us, so we knew what we had committed to. Elm are slowly losing their foothold as the rot has set in. One tree lost to time, now stands, blackened, and twisted against the sky, as a macabre reminder that much can change. It will come down in its own time but not until generations of Flickers, squirrels – grey, black, and red, Pileated Woodpeckers and untold others have fashioned homes in the crags of this old snag.  Histories are so much better with feather and fur involved after all.

Lilac planted for a friend now gone – but still here.

Lilacs, white and shades of lavender, tell a tale of our time here and fragrance the air with stories to be told. Lilacs are my partner’s favourite flower and that very first spring, in the middle of a lawn, I planted a deep purple promise whose heavy blossoms now greet us every year. Others were added over the years. This summer we propagated from some of the parent trees to ensure their company remains with us well into time – oh, and of course to shape more gardens.   

Willows loom and shift with the breeze – they remind us of times when we were children and would run through streets with long, flowing wands of green. With the drying that will accompany climate change now and into the future, we know we may lose some of these trees over time and are beginning to succession plant saplings. There was worry when the extended drought and heat caused the silver maples to drop leaves and the trees overall put out so much seed that we found ourselves sweeping off the deck and surrounds in July. These trees are friends of ours – we hurt when they hurt and feel joy when the leaves burst through.  When our friends lost their leaves, we felt it in other ways too – the canopy cools the house but when depleted, the temperature rises for those below. This season though, August rains helped pull them and us through.

Add to this growing palette a house, a barn-shaped workshop, and a teetering glass potting shed, and you have a good idea of what we moved to.  The potting shed would be taken down in time before it sagged into memory and a pergola was put in place, the workshop was painted fire-engine red and festooned with a painted quilt block, and the house remains to anchor it all.  

Finding a green place is to begin an adventure and today a means to survive the long months of pandemic isolation.  Into the green we went, happy, expectant, and wary at the same time.