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.