Garden musings


Sorry for the radio silence, I’ve been in Toronto and New York for the last two weeks drinking endless bubble teas and pounding the pavement. It snowed a few times and the wind was brutal, any dreams I had of magnolia were crushed. Instead, I made do with snowdrops, hamamelis, aconite and crocuses, along with afternoons spent in the Avery Library at Columbia reading through their garden design collection and two lectures by Peter Wirtz and Robert Mallet.

Sometimes I worry that after four years of mainly engaging with gardens as visitor or a reader, that any legitimacy I might have had to call myself a gardener will be lost. But the more I listen to other great gardeners whom I admire, the more I realize how important it is to have a good eye and that developing that eye takes time and experience – so just looking and studying is never a waste of time. Frank Cabot’s ‘The Greater Perfection’ is an excellent lesson in this – he has exquisite taste and pulls from great gardens he has seen, as well as his skills as a plantsman, but he also relies on the eyes and skills of artisans to bring his vision to life.

Garden books seem to fall into two main categories – intensely personal memoirs of a garden such as ‘The Greater Perfection,’ or Dan Pearson’s ‘Home Ground,’ and general manuals on growing plants. Right now I find myself craving something a bit more – Russell Page’s ‘Education of a Gardener’ or perhaps Gerritson’s ‘Essay on Gardening.’ It’s not to say that these two are not also intensely personal, with art it seems most things are, but they also lead to broader conversations on the purpose to gardening and human intervention in the landscape.

When I first started gardening as a child, I just wanted more flowers and weird plants – I quickly learned I had to make some compromises due to climate and sunlight, but I never wanted to spend my money on more than one of each kind of plant because where’s the fun in that?! Having visited enough gardens now, I am beginning to understand the beauty in restraint. Even as I get more excited about plants every day, my eye is drawn again and again to more restful landscaping that feature layered hedging or the repetition of plant communities such as one finds in a meadow (Giubbilei’s Chelsea Garden 2009 is perfection in my mind).  In a small space especially it’s easy to overwhelm with ideas and plants.

All this is to say that while I feel my eye has improved, my thoughts about meaning in the garden don’t seem to have progressed. Does a garden always have to have meaning beyond simply beautiful plants? Is it enough to hope to evoke peace or to match the architecture? I just want to look at certain plants together. It’s funny, after reading Page and Gerritson, Giubbilei’s book along with Wirtz’s talk both seemed so straightforward: clear design voice and clean plant pallette. I strive for that simplicity, but hope at some point to have conversations on a broader scale. Especially as the way we garden shifts to keep up with changing climates and depleted resources.


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Foraging and Floral Design: Act Responsibly

Please don't pick the daffodils in Morningside Park

Please don’t pick the daffodils in Morningside Park

As spring creeps into my instagram feed, I have started to see mentions of “foraging” pop up again by florists and non-florists alike. Branches of dogwood and lilac, bunches of narcissus and long strands of jasmine are the early targets. I understand the impulse – as humans we seem obsessed with possessing beauty. But I have become more and more upset by the callous disregard florists especially seem to have for the impacts of their advocacy of foraging.

Foraging is obviously an old concept; the word simply means to search for food and provisions. When all the materials grew in the wild floral art was dependent on foraging, but gradually demand for volume and consistency led a shift towards specially cultivated flowers and foliage. The majority of flowers bought by consumers now are distant cousins of the original species plants and grown under precise conditions to result in maximum efficiency/profit for all the players in the system.

The natural floral design movement however rejects a pure reliance on the products of the flower industry, drawing on the garden and hedgerow for inspiration and materials (thanks Constance Spry!). It’s become a point of pride for florists to use “foraged” materials to enhance their designs, particularly when in search of lush woody material, vines, or rare flowers. Of course, “foraged” can mean from their own garden or that of a friend, but it most often seems to refer to materials from public property or those obtained by trespassing on private property and is the topic of today’s rant.

I’ve thought about foraging a lot since I developed a taste for natural design. The florists I most look up to have always talked about how the best designs use local elements, including those found in fields and on the side of the highway. I’ve heard stories of people going into the forest to find huge branches or ripping off lilacs from a neighbour’s bush. Always carry clippers seems to be the motto.

There’s many reasons florists feel compelled to “forage” for their art. Non-commercially grown materials tend to have more flowing forms and lines, adding authenticity, serendipity and grace to arrangements. They are often more lush or varied. They are available cheaply in bulk. They add local flavour and inspiration. Some of the most beautiful designs I have seen almost certainly include foraged materials. I disagreed with it silently then when it was mostly insider knowledge but now florists are admitting it on instagram to tens of thousands of followers – followers who subscribe wholeheartedly to the DIY ethos and view these designers’ work as aspirational – and I think it’s downright irresponsible of them (beyond the fact that their actions are inherently illegal or at the very least selfish).

Foraging is a classic tragedy of the commons problem. I don’t think there’s much controversy when it comes to not picking things from local parks – there’s an implicit understanding that if many people cut flowers there would be nothing for others to enjoy. I just think this should be applied widely to all public spaces likes laneways, bus stops and yes, the side of the highway, with the only exceptions made for known invasive plants (in which case, you better be confident in your plant ID and rip the whole plant out). Justifying foraging becomes a slippery slope – well if I cut from an isolated and large state/provincial forest, what difference does it make? But again, if everyone does so, and particularly if they have no understanding of plants and the forest ecosystem, then there is a good chance they can do serious damage to the forest. Also, as someone who keeps a mental map of favourite plants, trust me when I say that the shrub you are butchering on the side of the BQE is probably appreciated by at least a handful of commuters every day it’s in flower, and looked forward to annually, and you just destroyed it for your personal art. So thanks for that.

When it comes to foraging on private property, I don’t care if it’s one branch or just a few blooms: If it’s on someone else’s property it’s not yours to take unless you ask for permission. Don’t be a trespasser and don’t run the risk of breaking some person’s heart. You didn’t grow that lilac, someone else did, and you should grow up and be content to just look at it.

Bottom line: foraging done on public property or while trespassing is selfish and destructive. It is made worse when done by people with little to no knowledge of plants, proper pruning technique, or local ecosystems (and I include many florists and myself in that category). If you want a particular foliage or flower, you should grow it yourself, find someone else to grow it for you, or get permission to take it from private property. Or, exercise some moral fortitude and self restraint and just enjoy it from afar! At the very least stop encouraging thousands of people to forage irresponsibly.


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Garden Goals for 2015


My goal: grow ALL the columbines! (These were at Wave Hill)

Over the years I’ve really enjoyed reading the blog Growing with Plants by Matt Mattus. It’s got a great design and Matt is an enthusiastic and knowledgeable plantsman. Plus he has a greenhouse! One of my favourite things he does is present a list of annual goals/challenges (like training fuschia topiaries or growing exhibition sweet peas) and then follows up on his successes and failures.

Since this is my first year of seriously returning to gardening after New York, I am trying to keep myself in check, but also challenge myself to learn as much as possible. In order to keep myself accountable I will list them here and then report back next year. If you have any tips on anything let me know!!

1. Primula auricula

Primula theatre at NYBG

Primula theatre at NYBG

I had seen antique drawings of Primula auricula and of course stunning photos from Chelsea but they had never been something I actively considered growing until my hellebore obsession led me to perusing nurseries such as Ashwood or Woottens of Wenhaston. That people could casually order dozens of different varieties in the strangest colours made me insanely jealous. Luckily we have Wrightman’s Alpines in Canada so I ordered 5 to try, on top of some seeds I bought from an Edmonton enthusiast. Those seeds are currently in the basement under my grow lights and I’m hoping they show signs of life in the next few weeks. I did save a few seeds to sprinkle outside in an area I am going to designate as a random perennial seed bed. May the hardiest win!

2. Hellebores


Hellebores in Morningside Park

This past fall Uncle D and I transplanted two hellebores from his yard into my new woodland bed. I also picked up two from a local nursery for 75% off because it was October and only crazy people were still gardening. Lucky for me we had a really mild October and I gardened into November. I’m hoping the plants had some chance to establish and I mulched them heavily with leaves. So far we’ve had constant snow cover since it got cold in November which should also help. I also bought a small packet of seeds from Gardens North to try out – many germinated but did not seem to want to release their seed coats. I did some delicate seed surgery and now have a few sets of dark green cotelydons. I’m hoping in the next month or so they start growing a few true leaves. Hellebores are marginally hardy here and for the last few years Uncle D has grown impressive leaves but no flowers.

3. Dahlias


Dahlias at Butchart Garden

Ah, dahlias. What is there to be said that hasn’t been already. Everyone has gone crazy for them lately, popularized by Floret Flower Farm and the Brooklyn florist set, not to mention Martha Stewart. I’ve only ever grown the bedding types, so this year I am venturing into the unknown with a couple dozen different varieties of tubers set to arrive sometime in April/May from three different growers (Oakridge Dahlias, FGL Dahlias, and Production St-Anicet). I tried to choose early flowering varieties as I know our growing season is significantly shorter than either coast, but even if I get only a few weeks of flowers it should be worth it!

In April I will build some raised beds to house my collection during the summer à la Francis Palmer.  I’m also planning to pot them up indoors as soon as I receive them so they can get a bit of head start before going into the garden proper. Should be interesting to see how fast I can get flowers and how strongly they perform.

4. Perennials from seed

Sorry if this is non-specific, but for the first time I’m growing 30 or so different perennials from seed. At this point I have sowed most of them as many need a chilling period, or like clematis, are warm but irregular germinators. So far I have one tiny Clematis stans seedling which germinated in the kitchen cupboard and has since been potted up (one true leaf already!), plus my little hellebores. I will rejoice if I manage to grow even one or two plants to maturity as they are all things I’ve rarely seen at local nurseries or are fairly expensive to buy.

5. Aquilegia


Aquilegia at a test garden in Ottawa

Columbines are one of my favourite flowers. We’ve always had a few around the yard that, despite getting decimated by slugs, come back (or self-seed). Daryl grows some real beauties in his yard as well. Inspired by the wide variations present at Wave Hill, I am determined to grow and encourage wide variation in my beds going forwards. So far I have seed for Aquilegia vulgaris (multiple kinds including ‘Black Barlow’ and some clementines), A. fragrans, A. ‘Leprechaun Gold,’ A x. caerula, and A. longissima, plus I ordered A. chaplinei. I am hoping they will eventually produce some new crosses to play with. If there’s any breeding project I’m excited about, it’s this one, even if it is one of the easiest. I thought first about trying to breed zinnias as I’ve seen some pretty crazy ones out there on internet forums, but they’re nothing next to the romance of aquilegia… and what bouquet doesn’t benefit from their addition.

6. Continue improving the woodland garden

Thalictrum thalictroides at NYBG

Thalictrum thalictroides at NYBG

Two years ago I started making a little woodland garden with some assorted perennials I found on sale at the end of the summer, predominantly thalictrum, heuchera/heucherella and a couple different epimediums. I also transplanted in astrantia that had self-seeded in our yard. Last October I added in some snowdrops, muscari, crocuses, Tulipa sylvestris and Fritillaria meleagris, plus the aforementioned hellebores. I am hoping for a good show this spring! This year I would like to add Anemone nemorosa, Thalictrum thalictroides, Trillium grandiflorum and Uvularia grandiflorum, plus a few more epimediums. I fell in love with Anemone nemorosa and Thalictrum thalictroides in NYC and I am determined to try and grow them here. They should be pretty sheltered as there’s a large saskatoon bush (Amelanchier alnifolia) and the house on the east side of the bed and a 5 ft. wood fence and mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia) to the South. The snow is usually slow to melt there too.

I am also worried that all those spring blooms will be fried in seconds if we end up with one of those instant summer years. It is tough when tulips are only reliably blooming in June. June! The weather could actually inflict anything from snow to a balmy +25. So spring, and this garden, might be a bit of a joke… At least most of the perennials have nice summer/fall foliage.

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I’m in love with these Muscari ‘Artist’ as well as some unnamed Muscari armeniacum.  Muscari are easy to force – or at least I’ve had no trouble with them. I just potted them up and left them in the fridge for 10-12 weeks (watering only when they appeared dry). I will say the bulbs chilled longer have been much more productive bloomers.

‘Tykus, Tykus’ - A Lithuanian folk song Oran sang at today’s concert which I loved.

Food52’s Piglet Tournament is back with some great cookbook reviews!

As much as my palette is perplexed by high end dining, I’m extremely taken by the visual presentation of it – see these dishes from Noma’s pop-up in Japan.

I’ve been doing a bit of reading on irises and lilies lately. I’m not sure I want to commit to either at this time because I’m not sure how long I’ll be here, but they are genera with a lot of possibility for our zone. One story I enjoyed coming across was that of the Benton irises bred by the painter Cedric Morris Cedric Morris (who is credited with breeding one of the first pink irises and a subsequent pink ’Strathmore’ that won some accolades at Chelsea in 1948). Apparently he dedicated a field to growing over a 1,000 of his own crosses. You can see some beautiful photos on Dan Pearson’s site and read a detailed catalogue entry of the painting ‘Iris Seedlings’ about the connection between Morris’ art and irises.



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Weekly Links: A tulip endorsement


I’ve always said that when in doubt about what flowers to get for someone, buy tulips. They’re generally cheerful and they keep growing in the vase so that every day the arrangement is slightly different. The Dutch grow hundreds of varieties of tulips, from weird parrots to dainty frills. These are double tulips called ‘Flaming Evita,’ which I’m pretty fond of. I love how full the doubles get.

Right now you can even find tulips that haven’t flown across the ocean. BC tulips are everywhere and at the Strathcona Market you can buy some from Red Deer! So for Valentine’s Day, skip the roses and grab some tulips instead. A fresh and dynamic choice – much like your relationship, right?




Humans of New York has done some great work but it doesn’t get much better than helping a student and his school principle raise over a million dollars, visit the Ellen show and sit with the President in the Oval Office

 Stile Antico sings ‘Agnus Dei’ from William Byrd’s ‘Mass for Five Voices’

Snowdrops of the Chelsea Physic Garden (Love the idea of a snowdrop theatre!)

High End Dumpster Diving - mom didn’t seem too keen when I told her you could make $100,000+ doing this

Orange glazed polenta cake (for some reason I have a cornmeal craving)

Saipua florals in Mexico

The perfect tea shop, Bellocq

A make-ahead potato gratin

I’m really sad that Gardenimport has closed right when I need an exotic bulb source in Canada, but happy to have stumbled across this article on growing summer bulbs in pots

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Winter Madness


Hellebores in NYC in December

I struggle in January – it always seems never ending, and I had forgotten what it is to be staring down 5 months until “spring” (which is the term I use to describe the last two weeks in May – others have been known to employ “hogslop”). After living in the East, where I usually had snowdrops in February and reliably had early bloomers by mid-March to look forward to, January in Alberta has seemed interminable. But last week the muscari I forced (in the beer fridge my brother graciously loaned me) finally started to bloom and things seemed doable.


Muscari ‘Artiste’ from Botanus and one of mom’s forced hyacinths

The fridge is now filling up with little pots of seeds that need to be chilled. I’m trying a bunch of new stuff: annuals, perennials, bulbs. I’m sure I will have pretty high failure rates, but for the price, seeds offer a great return in anticipation and the opportunity to try stuff no one else has. Some seeds will be going outside into the snow in the next few weeks, while others will be warmly tended with heat mats under my new grow lights.

It reminds me of when dad decided we should grow native grasses, which have all kinds of weird requirements for germination. Unfortunately, meeting those requirements was the most exciting thing about them – they eventually were labelled weeds and removed. Sorry dad! But on the plus side you clearly imparted some lunatic impulses towards growing novel things.


My NARGS seed exchange haul

I am also working on possibilities for grand adventures next winter. Every time I go to complain I consciously remind myself that this is a choice – no one has to live like this. People ask if I miss NYC, and I do, every day, but I don’t regret leaving. NYC couldn’t easily commit to my demands for a garden so we had to part terms. Now I just need to figure out where I can find that commitment. If it means a little globe wandering, well, now’s the time right? If anyone has any thoughts let me know! I am currently looking at UK gardening opportunities.


Mahonia (about to burst into fragrant, yellow bloom) and Red Sprite Winterberry on the High Line in December


Buttermilk Tangelo Scones

A fascinating article on archiving the web

I made these chocolate brownies with peanut butter frosting last night – pretty great. I skipped the salt because unsophisticated.

Great furniture picks – I think current internet taste is finally infiltrating my brain. Related: the new Ikea line which is awesome!

Listening to this performance by Lake Street Drive from Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis, which is on Netflix Canada. So much talent on display – worth a watch.

Cool trailer for a pixel-inspired dance show via Kottke

Lost buildings of London

From the same blog: Christmas Meat Auction – I bet Shaun wishes there was one of these in Saskatoon

Impossible chocolate flan

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Almond Acorns


This year we decided not to get a tree, mom donated or threw out most of our Christmas decorations, and for the first time I am not hosting any baking parties as many of my friends are traveling or not coming home for Christmas this year. I’m struggling to find the annual rhythm, but one thing remains the same, Christmas cookies must be made. While Aunty Cathy has me beat currently with her multiple batches of nanaimo bars, and gingerbread cookies, I vowed I will turn it around this week. I made the classic Almond Acorns from Canadian Living this weekend and forced my cousins into dipping them for me. I have fond memories of making these with Monika, likely for the first time in 2001, when this magazine was published. She was a fan of the whimsical shape but I think everyone can get behind their crumbly nuttiness. I would recommend not grinding the almonds too fine (stoneground cornmeal, not flour texture) to get the best out of them.

Other holiday favorites:
Peppermint Sandwich Cookies
Nanaimo Bars
Maple Pecan Cookies
Gooey Butter Cookies
Sugar Cookies

Almond Acorns
Adapted from Canadian Living
Depending on size of cookies makes anywhere from 3 – 5 dozen

1 1/3 cups raw almonds
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 1/4 cups salted butter, softened
1/2 cup packed brown sugar (preferably dark)
1 tsp vanilla
2 1/4 cups flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
6 0z semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped

1. Roast almonds at 350F for 10 minutes or until toasty and fragrant. Cool and then grind the almonds with 1/4 cup of granulated sugar in a food processor. Set aside.

2. In a large bowl, cream butter with remaining white and brown sugar. Stir in vanilla.

3. Add 1 cup of flour and 1/2 tsp baking powder and mix until just combined, before adding remaining flour. Stir in almond mixture. If dough seems excessively sticky add in more flour or chill for 1 hour.

4. Roll into balls and pinch one end to form a tear drop shape, placing finished cookies on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Chill for 1 hour or up to one day.

5. Bake at 350F for 12 min., or until the sides are lightly gold. Ideally bake one pan at a time, but I usually do two at a time, rotating at the 6 minute mark. Let cool on pan for 5-10 minutes before transferring to a rack. Let cool completely before dipping as cookies are very tender.

6. Melt chocolate (I prefer the microwave at around 70% power for a minute or less at a time, stirring at each interval). Dip the rounded end of each cookie in chocolate to resemble an acorn cap. Place on waxed paper and chill briefly to set the chocolate. I advise storing the cookies between layers of waxed paper to keep them looking their best.


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