A non-trifling amount of trifle

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Summer means trifle in our house. I made two huge ones for my grandparents’ 60th anniversary, and also a chocolate and vanilla layer cake with swiss buttercream. I was so delighted by the flowers I put together on the top – phlox, sweet peas, oregano and geranium leaves. Ignore my super crooked writing though! And the little raspberry cake pictured below we ended up eating the next day with some unexpected guests. Always fun to share cake! I used the sour cream chocolate cake from Sky High which you can find on Smitten Kitchen, and then two different vanilla cake recipes also from Sky High. I still prefer the buttermilk one that I’ve posted here. To punch up Smitten’s swiss buttercream I added raspberry jam.

The garden continues to explode with flowers and I’m so excited that the roses have started! All except Poseidon I’ve never seen in person so it’s been fun to study them as they open. Incidentally Poseidon has the most immature buds of the 7 bushes but it’s also the most shaded so perhaps that’s why it’s slower. It’s gotten overwhelmed by the cobea vine which I am contemplating butchering if it doesn’t bloom in the next two weeks.

A good read from Wired on the DNA editing technique Crispr

The best of Poppies and Posies’ bouquets

A review of Hidcote

I always appreciate the sneak peek at Molly’s cookbook shelf

The raspberries are almost done but I might try and make these fresh raspberry scones

Fascinating article on two sets of fraternal twins who were actually identical twins

A quick recipe for zucchini

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Les Quatre Vents

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Two weeks ago we finally made the trek to La Malbaie, in the Charlevoix region of Quebec, to see Les Quatre Vents – Francis Cabot‘s garden of ‘Greater Perfection.’ Les Quatre Vents is considered one of Canada’s finest private gardens and is only open to the public four days of the year. After reading about it in various places and being excited by the prospect of seeing a distinguished garden in a climate zone close to ours, we started getting serious about planning the trip last November. It’s hard to believe all that’s left now is to post some pictures (including some from my aunt).

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The drive to La Malbaie from Quebec City is incredibly hilly and probably holds a Canadian record for most signs per capita warning for moose. Nonetheless, it is quite beautiful and affords some top-notch views of the St. Lawrence. I would like to say we spent some time in La Malbaie but truthfully we only came for the garden and left immediately afterwards.

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We had no trouble finding Les Quatre Vents and the organization was very impressive, with lots of volunteers helping out. We had bought our tickets for one of the mandatory guided tours in December, but I was not quick enough to secure a spot on the one English language tour of the day so we were committed to 3 hours in French beginning at 8:30 AM. And it was 3 hours in French that we got. We had brief hopes that one of the volunteers who chatted with us at the ticket area might lead our group but it was not to be.

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I guess I thought it wouldn’t really matter whether I could understand the guide or other people on the tour since I’ve never been very good with group garden visits (they get in the way of appreciating the plants, the space, my personal reactions to it all). But it did matter when we were supposed to pay attention to the (long-winded) guide and were stopped from wandering off by another volunteer, when I couldn’t understand what the other people on our tour were doing (many were wearing safari-type hats and kept taking pictures of the whole group), and when it got tiresome trying to separate out enthusiastic ramblings (“C’est sublime au printemps!”) from instruction. At the end they all sang a traditional song to the guide and other volunteer while we looked on in confusion. It was a strange cultural immersion that left me at a remove from a garden of intimate spaces and beautiful long views.

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And yet, it is a truly remarkable garden and obviously well cared for. If you have been to Stonecrop then you might understand why we went in with low expectations, but the buildings were all beautifully kept up and the plantings lush and healthy. Cabot’s use of hedging and large scale perennial plantings (particularly for shade), plus a clever layout, makes it an astonishing garden to move through since the rooms are very enclosed and each quite different from the last. One of the best discoveries was that almost every room features water – ponds, pools or rills, plus the stunning waterfall in the Japanese garden.  I want to re-read ‘The Greater Perfection’ now that I have walked through the whole thing and gotten a better sense of the scale. When you’re there certain rooms seem so much smaller than in photographs but the views seem longer than ever.

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Unlike Stonecrop, Les Quatre Vents is free of plant identification labels. I was a bit sad that our guide warned upfront that he did not know specific names of plants (which was basically the only question I practiced asking in French ahead of time). Accordingly, he did not seem interested in pointing out special plants (of which there were many!!) or giving us much time to closely examine anything (would have killed to spend another 20 minutes in the primrose dell). It was luck, and the sudden relenting of the volunteer in charge of making sure we were on time and didn’t stray, that I managed to get some pictures of the beautiful primroses still in bloom and catch a glimpse of some dainty cypripediums.

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At the end of a quick three hours, after we emerged from the singing circle and walked across the field to our car, we proceeded to spend the rest of the day discussing our impressions of the garden and the tour (two very separate things). My uncle asked at one point whether I preferred Chanticleer or Les Quatre Vents and honestly it’s hard to say. Chanticleer is easy to fall in love with (although I was so sad to read in ‘Hummelo’ that Piet Oudolf hated it). The experience of going to Chanticleer and being able to move along the gently undulating paths at your own pace with no one distracting you from the incredible plants and softly defined spaces- I now see it as the privilege it is.  Les Quatre Vents is a harder garden to access in all senses of the word. The spaces are quite formal in tone and overwhelmingly, almost imposingly, enclosed through tall hedging or green walls of plants – being herded through them in a group does not make the garden feel any warmer. But Les Quatre Vents does picturesque like nothing else and takes you all over the world when it comes to influences – it’s clear Francis Cabot had excellent taste. Pitting them against one another is like choosing between decadent chocolate cake and a Pierre Herme macaron – both delicious but one is indulgently pleasurable while the other provides you intense bursts of flavour and sometimes makes you work for it.

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Ultimately we were happy to have made the trip – Les Quatre Vents is undoubtedly beautiful in a way I’m not sure you can see anywhere else in Canada, at least on this scale. Many thanks must go to the Cabot family who continue to open the garden to the public and maintain it at such a high level, as well as the volunteers who make the day possible. They are very gracious hosts. My only suggestion would be to offer a silent tour – I would wake up even earlier to try and get tickets for it.

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Doing summer things

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Summer snowflakes (Leucojum) with summer snowflakes (elm seeds… bane of my existence after thrips, stinkbugs, and drought)

Hard to believe it is already June. Since I’ve gotten back into garden blogging I instinctively want to start each post about the weather, but that’s lame, especially in Alberta. Suffice it to say that the weather gods did not rejoice at my return and grant us a gentle transition from spring to summer.

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The irises were done in 3 days due to the heat

No matter. I have been diligently spraying things with insecticidal soap and patiently spending hours watering. It’s hard to remember what the point of it all is right now, when everything looks kind of small and straggly. What does look good are the older perennials – epimediums, thalictrums, astilbe, etc. A few years of settling and they are starting to increase in size. I’m kind of excited to see how everything looks in another three years after my little seedlings develop and I have a chance to move things around.

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I would like more of these Thalictrum aquilegifolium – only thing really blooming in the border right now and is about 2 1/2 ft tall!

In other news I made several Smitten Kitchen recipes. I would heartily recommend the Chocolate-Hazelnut Macaroon Torte, but everyone really liked the Key Lime Pie as well. I was less excited about the key lime pie because it required zesting and juicing way more than the suggested one dozen key limes but apparently the recipe also works with regular limes. Other things I have made: microwave oat bars. Breakfast of champions.

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From bottom left: Chocolate-Hazelnut Macaroon Torte, Key Lime Pie and Best Cocoa Brownies

– an omelette for a crowd

– already ordered Hummelo, the new book by Piet Oudolf, reviewed here

fascinating visit to a historic dock yard

– would have loved to see Dan Pearson’s Chelsea garden – am contemplating buying tickets for next year

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Spring, summer, whatever

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I’m trying not to get teary eyed at the early loss of my beautiful ‘Dream Touch’ (pictured above) or ‘Brown Sugar’ tulips. It’s been a classic Alberta spring – snow one week, plus 25 the next. I can’t say I missed it. The only thing I did miss was the smell of Mayday trees which perfume the air.

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Over the past few days I’ve been putting in dozens of seedlings and the dahlias that I pre-sprouted. Still dozens and dozens left to go. The perennial border is definitely filling in now, although it is increasingly haphazard. I figure I’ll give the seedlings a few years and then I can do a big move if necessary.

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Many of the perennials that went in 2 years ago are looking quite good right now (of course the heucheras never came back last year – that was my second try with them and still a total fail). The thalictrums, epimediums, aruncus and ‘Splish Splash’ geranium are starting to really dominate their spaces. Of course am I learning from this lesson and planting my seedling perennials far apart? No.

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Snowdrops!

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Spring is progressing here in Edmonton, albeit incredibly slowly. I’ve been heartened by the early flowers of scilla, crocuses and my beloved snowdrops (who are apparently so desperate they sprout bud first from the ground). Today I even found some violets blooming in the window well! Meanwhile inside I’ve started sowing trays of different flowers and gotten the dahlia tubers sprouting. Fast running out of room though. I’m hoping to plant out some of the sweet pea seedlings in the next two weeks which should help. May be too early but such is life.

In random perennial seed news I put everything that hasn’t germinated outside in a semi-shady spot in their plastic bags. Violets and aconitum have rewarded me with germination so far. We’ll see about the others… I’m also starting to face reality – I need to figure out where all these seedlings are going. Tomorrow’s project is potting up the garden auriculas and hellebores. Hopefully they will grow enough over the summer to be safely tucked into the garden in early fall. Although if you have any alternate growing suggestions I’m open to them!

I'm planting only Cream Beauty from now on

I’m planting only Cream Beauty from now on

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Garden musings

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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 like 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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