Friday, 30 December 2011

Pitmedden Gardens

It's a murky grey day in Toronto today, so aside for doing some prep work on hors d'oeuvres for tomorrow's soiree, it's a good time to pull a chair up to the hearth and go back through photos from this year.  The travel highlight of the year was 3 weeks back in Scotland to visit my family in mid-summer.  They were having a particularly cool, wet summer, and so the gardens were not in absolutely peak condition, but coming from the furnace-like conditions of a Toronto summer, it was a wonder to me to see such lush, green abundance everywhere.  Nowhere was that more appreciated than on a trip to Pitmedden Gardens, on a particularly action packed castle-viewing day.  We had a nice, relaxed stroll through the beautiful parterres, and finished off with an absolutely delicious cup of tea on the terrace.  I was particularly  delighted by the French chateau-like towers at the corners of the huge protecting walls, the bee-skeps in little niches in the wall to protect the occupants from the elements, and an absolute abundance of espaliers.

The protecting walls around the parterres are covered in espaliers - apples and pears

The hedges looked beautiful, although the scars of a couple of harsh winters were evident

A system of large nylon nets provides near invisible, and highly effective, staking for all the herbaceous perennials

Bee skeps are housed in wall niches

magnificent parterres at Pitmedden

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Final Christmas Preparations

Got up early this morning and headed out to St. Lawrence Market to pick up the turkey and the last few bits and bobs for tomorrow.  It's a beautiful crisp winter morning, but we won't be having a white Christmas this year in Toronto.
View of Toronto this morning from the Mimico shoreline

Sunrise over Lake Ontario,  on Christmas Eve.  A view like this is one of the reasons to live in Mimico.

Even before 8am, the crowds had descended on St. Lawrence Market

Cheese anyone?

This little piggy went to market......

Plaid is in vogue this year

Downtown scene
The rest of the day will be filled with making cranberry sauce, croustades, a fish pie for dinner tonight, walnut soup, bacon rolls, savoury palmiers, mulled cider, sage and onion stuffing, cutting up some Hasselback potatoes (yum yum!) and making a last minute Christmas pud and some brandy butter.  Since Davey is allergic to grapes and wine, it will actually be calvados butter, but I'm sure the effect will be just the same.

I plan to listen to some very traditional Christmas music, and have the odd glass of sherry whilst all the chores get taken care of!  Here is a vidoe of one of my absolute favourite pieces of Christmas music:

Hope you have a wonderful holiday, in whatever way you celebrate it.  Peace & Joy!

Friday, 23 December 2011

Drunken paperwhites & repeat poinsettias

In the past, when I've grown paperwhites, I've had two main problems.  I can't predict how long they are going to take to bloom, so I either have them a week before I need them, or a fortnight after.  The other problem I always used to face is that they grow very quickly, and reach dizzying heights, only to crash and flop mid-bloom.
I've solved both problems this year, and have nice short, strong stems which are poised to bloom, right on cue on Christmas weekend.   To manage time to bloom, I was able to take advantage of the fact that my uninsulated mudroom is just above freezing this year due to our warmer than normal December, so I popped them out there for a few days to slow down their growth, which has meant they are bursting forth on the eve of Christmas eve.  I couldn't have planned it better if I had tried!  The problem of over extended floppy growth was easily resolved by giving them a nice hearty cocktail at regular intervals!  It turns out that watering them with a dilute alcoholic solution stunts their growth just enough to stop them flopping, but without putting too much stress on them to impede blooming.  See here for further details, and raise a glass of good cheer!

My other horticultural experiment for Christmas involved trying to get last year's poinsettias to rebloom.  I have to say, this was a case where neglect was actually a benefit.  One is supposed to rigidly apply a shortened cycle of light-dark, to stimulate winter light conditions, ahead of when that cycle might actually be in play.  This tricks the plant into thinking it has passed the dead of winter and it starts it's spring blooming cycle just in time for Christmas (and yes, I know they are coloured bracts).  I accomplished the task easily enough by locking the plants away in an armoire for about 6 weeks, without any light at all, or any water, during all of October and half of November, whilst I was out of the house due to the renovations.  When I finally remembered about them, they were a little sorry, but still alive, and some judicious watering, feeding and a return to natural daylight served them well.  I now have 2 reasonably well blooming plants in time for Christmas.  I have to say, whilst I'm excited to have made the plants rebloom, I think for the sake of $5, I'll buy nice, new, bushy and highly coloured plants next year, from the garden centre!!
PS - anyone who thinks poinsettias are passé and that I have bad taste needs to lighten up.  It's the time of year for excesses, and we should revel in them.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Comfort Food: Toad in the Hole aka Clafoutis aux Saucisses

Other than some overnight frosts, we've barely had a cold day so far this December.  Last Thursday, we had a high of 12 degrees, and other than a bitterly cold and windy day on Saturday, we are back up in the high single digits today.  This is, of course, not what my garden needs.  The japonica quince I planted a couple of years ago is quite confused and has been sending out pretty coral coloured flowers with abundance, only to have them nipped at by overnight frosts.  I hope there are some buds left for the spring!

None-the-less, it's perfect Christmas shopping weather, and I've taken the day off work to finish off that task.  Despite the rather unseasonably mild weather, for some reason, this weekend has served an abundance of hearty comfort food and toasty log fires.  There's been a gingery sweet potato soup with chunks of crusty bread, pork chops baked with sauerkraut, onions and bacon, and mounds of fluffy mashed potatoes.  Sticky pear and ginger parkin with custard, and the charmingly named British standard, Toad in the Hole.  I made a decidedly delicious version, with upmarket pretensions, following a Nigel Slater recipe, where the sausages are stripped of their skins, and re-wrapped in proscuitto.  I think it could be renamed quite fairly as Clafoutis aux Saucisses, but I might be getting carried away.  Nigel calls for strongly flavoured, herby sausages, which makes me think of lovely Cumberland sausages, but in Mimico at 5pm on a Friday, the best I could come up with were some mild Italian Sausages, so I boosted the flavour by chopping up fresh sage and rosemary, and rolling the naked sausages generously in that mix before applying the prosuitto.  The result, although not exactly calorie light, was quite delicious.  Accompanied by some onion gravy, made rich with Marsala, it was just the thing to stick to the ribs and keep out any draughts......even if we've been spared the big chill so far!
Toad in the Hole, also known as Clafoutis aux Saucisses, or Virtue in Danger

Friday, 16 December 2011

My Mimico bathroom reno: before and after

Admittedly it's been quite some time since my last post (just a shade more than quarter of a year!), but for 1 whole month of that, I was decamped at the other end of town whilst the singular bathroom in my 90 year old house was gutted and transformed (thanks to the kind hospitality of Mr. Davey, as well as other friends who let me use their showers on occasion).  It's been quite a process to get it finished, with a few mishaps along the way that have needed re-work to be done to fix them, but it is now finished and I am most pleased with it!  The old bathroom was very much past it's prime.  The original clawfoot tub was still there, and it was actually one of things I loved about the house when I came to view it as a prospective buyer, but 8 years, and only 2 or 3 baths later, I had to realize that the bolt-on shower ring was not the most practical option for my daily needs.  Add to that the cracks in the walls, the chipped sink, scraped and peeling vinyl flooring and the generally worn out appearance of the whole room, it was clearly time for a change.  There were the usual challenges of working on an older house, such as the fact that when the old ceiling vent fan was removed, daylight could be seen coming in through the roof, and the fact that the 90 year main water valve had worn through to the only the thickness of a piece of aluminium foil, which caused the shutdown of the project until the city could turn off the mains and replace it, or that a good chunk of the kitchen ceiling below the bathroom came crashing down and needed to be repaired, but I was relieved that there were no more major problems such as asbestos, or rotten joists to contend with.

Since the room is quite tiny, I went with very simple and classic fixtures and finishes, with more traditional styling.  Lots of polished nickle, white subway tile and basket weave marble flooring.  The accessories are all from Restoration Hardware, the toilet and sink are American Standard Town Square, and the shower & tap fixtures are Hexis by Canadian firm, Rubinet.  It feels like the height of luxury to have a shower under the lovely rainhead.  I picked up the classical bust at Of Things Past a couple of weekends ago, and it seems to fit in nicely.  I think the only thing that is still missing is a window covering, for which I have in mind a roman blind, but that will need to wait until the New Year - no time left before Christmas!

Here's a video of the transformation - the pain & inconvenience was more than worth it.

Monday, 12 September 2011


After humming and hawing all weekend about whether my first fig was fully ripe or not, I came home from work today to find that the perfect golden-yellow skin was starting to develop a few superficial brown spots, so there was no more waiting to be done.  The result was absolutely delicious......juicy,  softly melting, gloriously pink inside and with a honeyed sweetness that was outstanding!  Quite a result given that the poor plant has to live down in my cold, dank basement for the best part of half a year, when it's minus twenty outside!  I do hope that a few of the more recent baby figs have time to ripen before it gets too chilly.  At least there is plenty of sunshine in the forecast for the rest of this week.  I'm not entirely sure of the variety unfortunately.  It was just marked "Italian fig" when I bought it, but I do wonder from some website searches, given the really delicious honey flavour, if it could be an Italian honey fig, or Lattarula?  If anyone is an expert out there, and can identify from the photo, I'd be glad to hear from you!

Not quite sure of the variety (it was only marked "Italian fig" when I bought the little plant 2 years ago), but the results are delicious!

Friday, 9 September 2011

A little mellow fruitfulness

Of course, it's still summer, so we certainly haven't quite yet reached the season of mists, but I think it is quite safe to say that mellow fruitfulness is having it's heyday for 2011.  Last weekend we were in Sarnia, which is pretty much as far south and west as you can go and still be in Ontario rather than Michigan, and went to the fantastic farmer's market there.  We loaded up on peaches, tomatoes, corn, melons and delicious wee filets of lake perch, and a nice big and cheerful bunch of gorgeous glads for mine hostess.  Other than the fish, it felt like we barely broke a fiver! (ok, I'm exaggerating, but compared to farmer's markets in Toronto, it was exceptionally good value for money).  Now, we did buy two very large baskets of peaches, with the intention of taking one home for some form of preservation, but they were so perfectly ripe and delicious, that it was a sheer impossibility not to eat the whole lot "out of hand".  On our return to Toronto, the weather took a nose-dive and temperatures dropped about 15 degrees from one day to the next.  However, I was delighted to find that the blast of heat had suited my fig admirably.  You may recall that I was very excited back in early July to find a burgeoning fruit bud swelling on my fig tree.  It grew quite quickly at first, but then seemed to stop growing just as quickly.  Whilst I was away for 3 weeks I think it pined for me and when I returned, it looked drawn and anxious, as though it might prematurely shuffle off it's mortal coil at any point.  Nothing much happened all through August, although it kept on hanging there, quiet-like, not attracting attention from me, or passing birds or bugs.  But when we got back after just 3 days away, the fig had decided it better finally do something, and swelled up like a water balloon, and started to shift in colour from dark green, to a yellowish hue, although the skin was still quite hard and unripe feeling.  But today, I think it is truly on the brink.  The skin is distinctly yellow and has softened, and the slightest hint of some cracking is appearing at the base.  If I was of a twittering disposition, I could promise hourly updates until the gestation was finished, but I'll spare you that pleasure. I am quite sure you have better things to do with your time.  But just in case you are interested, here are some photos of where we are at, and where we have come from.

My first fig, back in the first trimester in early July, clearly emerging from last year's growth, as the single member of my  breba crop.

By the end of July it had come along nicely, but then it just stopped growing and decided to hang out for a while.

As of September 9th, it has swollen considerably, taken on a delightful yellowish cast, and the skin has become softened and mellow.  I hope it actually tastes good!

There are a number of other little figs appearing on this year's new wood

I'm not quite sure if these will have time to mature & ripen before the fig goes dormant, which usually happens around early November, at which time all the leaves will have dropped, and I'll take it to a cold spot in the basement until next spring. 
Having grown up in Scotland, figs seem highly exotic, so to have grown one in my Canadian backyard has been quite exciting!

Monday, 5 September 2011

Winter Gardens, Duthie Park, Aberdeen, Scotland

My home town of Aberdeen has long been famous for its beautiful municipal gardens.  Duthie Park is the real jewel in the crown of these municipal spaces, and is a classic example of Victorian philanthropy, having been gifted to the city by Lady Elizabeth Duthie, for the general enjoyment of the populace.  When I was a child, the highlights for me were the paddle boats that could be rented, the pond which was always full of model boats and yachts, but as an adult, the Winter Gardens are a real asset, and when we arrived in Aberdeen in the middle of July, with torrential rain all around, a Saturday afternoon at the Winter Gardens was the perfect tourist activity.  The collection of cacti and succulents is the second largest in the UK, after the Eden Project in Cornwall.  Here's a slideshow from our trip.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Chamber Music

Recital tomorrow - I'm part of the Dvorak bagatelles, and then the others will be joined by a talented clarinetist for Mozart's clarinet quintet, which is heavenly.  The talented clarinetist is apparently also a talented double-bass player (go figure!), and so next year, we have decided to tackle the Trout Quintet.  I played it about 20 years ago, when a student, although I think we only performed a couple of movements at a college music evening.  Anyway, I'll need to start practicing already for next year.....this clip, featuring Clifford Curzon and the Amadeus Quartet, filmed at Aldeburgh, captures the energy of the piece.  It also alternately makes me quiver with excitement, and feel sick with terror at having try to get that level of agility!  I think I need to practice scales with velocity for the next 12 months.  Maybe I need to start piano lessons again too!

Sunday, 28 August 2011

What happens when you don't really have a plan?

My garden didn't really start out with a plan.  I know this is not the way things are supposed to be.  I know that the diligent gardener would never start a garden without a plan for amending the soil, and a plan for blending just the right colours, at just the right time of year.  I know that such fastidious gardeners would plan to ensure that the scheme of the garden harmoniously accommodated a variety of forms and textures, all carefully placed to create careful studies in contrast, with each plant given respect to height and spread, to ensure that each has its proper place, and that this place would anticipate the prodigious growth of mid to late summer.  I know all of these things.  And I'm not normally known for excessive spontaneity or bending the rules in other aspects of my life.  I've even been described as rigid (although I prefer to see it as "principled").  But my garden hasn't quite followed suit.  I've always had a soft spot for cottage gardens, with their happy-go-lucky, wayward charm, and this has rather influenced things in my garden.  That, and the fact that when I first dug out the lawn in my front yard, 6 years ago, I couldn't afford to do anything other than plant gradually, and fill the spaces with divisions and self-sown seedlings, slowly adding new and different plants over the last few years.  It's always worked beautifully in the spring, and early summer.  But as the summer wears on, things just start to get a bit out of control.  And now, after half a dozen years, it's become a bit of a jumble.  Add to that the fact that I've been pretty much traveling or too busy to get out in the garden since the beginning of July, and you get a picture of neglect.  A colleague, who happened to drive by my house a few days ago, remarked at "What a pretty jungle there is in front of my house".  Not entirely a compliment.  In the next few weeks, I need to take charge of the situation.  My trainee espalier apples need a proper home before winter, and some space has to be made in the front yard that they can call their own.  An excellent opportunity to do some more extensive re-arranging once most things have their best flowering behind them for the year, and before they get ready to go to bed until the spring.  In the meantime, I've been out there today, battling the wind, and staking things and generally trying to get them to look more orderly.  I know, I know.  Staking is not to be done once the plant has reached full size and has already flopped to the ground in the last storm.....but necessity is the mother of invention, and I did my level best.  The one good thing about having this blog is that having to take pictures of my garden and show them in public doesn't half shame me into getting things sorted out!
Plenty of colour, but too many rudbeckias!

Perovskias definitely in the wrong place.  Too big, too floppy, and too many self-seeded off-spring for their current location at the front of the garden.

And where is the colour in the rest of the garden at the end of August?!?

The charm of all the chaos has definitely worn thin!

And my bush wants trimming.

Not a good time to dig things up and transplant, so the best I can do is try to stake them.

Not ideal, but at least you can see things now, and the daylight can penetrate the jungle!

Boxwoods look better now, after a light trim

I love these platycodons, now that they've emerged from the sea of perovskia

A bit better.

Martha Stewart "Frizzled Coral Lace" gladiolus.  I hated these so much last year when I planted them,  that I ripped the bulbs out and tossed them at the end of the year.  I guess a few were missed, and amazingly they survived the winter to bloom again.  I hate the colour, and will ditch them once they've bloomed.  But it does make me wonder if another, more pleasing variety could survive the winter and come up trumphs.

The lavender hedge looks halfway decent now the plants are in their second season, and they continue to throw out new blooms.  I hope next year will be even better.  There are quite a number of self seedlings springing up too.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

A fleeting fancy...but was it worth the effort?

There are lots of things in life which, despite long periods of effort or waiting, are handsomely rewarded by the final results, making the whole thing worth it.  As of this week, the crinums I planted in pots in the spring are a bit of an open question in this regard.  They didn't show any signs of life through May and most of June, and I actually thought they'd succumbed to the wet spring and simply mouldered away.  But with a little heat at the beginning of July, a few signs of green started to emerge from the impressively large bulbs.  Finally in mid-August, one of the four bulbs that I planted started to venture forth with a single stem of flower buds.  Last Sunday, the buds quite literally swelled up like balloons (an impressive sight, which I was too busy to pay much attention to, let alone photograph) and on Monday, right on cue for my dinner with the Diva & her husband, the flowers were fully open and adorning my patio.  And I must admit, I was quite proud of them!

Crinum powellii Alba

Out of four crinum bulbs planted, only one has thrown up any flowers as of August 24

Now, and here's the rub, by the time I came home from work on Tuesday evening, thinking that I'd finally have time to enjoy their beauty, and the fragrance that I had read about.....they had already gone past, and only some sad, brown and wilting petals remained.  Now, I have carefully watered and fed them, as have my friends and deputies,  for weeks, so this is no fault of general diligence and care.  Perhaps with even more diligence, and feeding and watering for the rest of this season, I can fatten up the bulbs to get a more spectacular and lasting show next year.   BUT, given the tiny proportions of my yard, I really must pose myself the question of whether it's worth the effort, or should I move onwards and upwards with a new choice for next year.  How about a nice agapanthus?  I've always loved them, and saw them in abundance and doing quite well, thank you very much, in Scotland.  Any thoughts?

Friday, 19 August 2011

Fun weekend

Looking forward to a fun weekend, with lots of social activities planned, to make best use of these dog-days of summer.  Saturday evening will be a gathering with friends in The Beaches, and then on Sunday afternoon, I'm heading to Cabbagetown, for a little party since the Diva is in town - hopefully the weather will hold up, since I've heard the backyard of the hosts is quite lovely.  And then on Monday, the Diva will be staying at my place, and we'll have some folks over for dinner, and better yet, I'll get a chance to play some piano duets with her, and do some planning on our repertoire for Tuscany 2012.  The Dvorak Slavonic Dances are on the list, and I'm very excited to have the chance to sight-read our way through them....take a look at the wonderful video attached, and especially what goes on with their hands starting around 2:45, to see why I'm so excited.  Back in the late 19th century, when these pieces were first published, this must have offered a tantalizing opportunity for some very intimate contact between young lovers, whose chaperones would otherwise have forbidden such close physical proximity!

But first, before all that fun.....I have a guest room to clean and piles of laundry to get through!  Have a great weekend!

Thursday, 18 August 2011

My trip back home has given me Zone 7 envy....sort of.

I recently spent 3 lovely weeks back in my childhood home of Aberdeenshire, in the North East of Scotland, visiting my Mum and visiting lots and lots of castles, historic houses and gardens.   I have to say, visiting gardens in Scotland is often a revelation, both for their beauty, and history.  Most of the herbaceous plants that fill my garden really suffer in the Toronto climate, with dry summer soil, extreme heat and humid air, which all conspire to weaken plants and make them prone to outbreak of fungus and other infestations, and it really does require some diligent management to keep on top of those challenges.  In Scotland, those same plants are lush and abundant, and have a sort of "softness" about them - perfectly fresh and full of vim and vigour.  And then, of course, in general, although the scottish climate can't be described in any way as easy, it's extremely mild compared to southern Ontario.  The corner of Aberdeenshire that I call home, is somewhere around a zone 7, maybe even zone 8, and as a result, there are some things which are possible there, which just would not work in Toronto.  One of the most impressive that I encountered on this visit, which I don't recall seeing before, and which just about knocked my proverbial socks off, is the cardiocrinum.  Towering at about 8 feet high, the flowers look like the iconic lilies of religious art.  Perfect form, utter purity and perfect simplicity.....but magnified in a most glorious way!  This specimen was photographed at Crathes Castle, about 15 minutes scenic drive from where I grew up.  The gardens at Crathes are justifiably quite famous, and I took lots of photos, which I plan to share over the winter months, when my garden has gone to sleep for the season.
The only drawback to the scottish zone 7 climate, which serves to mitigate my zone envy, is that in 3 weeks, we only really had one day where the sun broke through the all encompassing grey cloud that blanketed us!  Actually, it wasn't typical even for Aberdeen and everyone was complaining about it, and thankfully, there was hardly any rain.  But it was lovely to come back to Toronto to perfect blue skies and abundant sunshine, if not the weeds in my garden!
Cardiocrinums growing in the lovely gardens at Crathes Castle, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

I must do a little research to find out if there are any options that would allow me to enjoy these in my own garden, perhaps I could keep them in pots and take them indoors during the winter.  In any case, these would join the ranks of gardening projects to test my patience, along with my espalier efforts, as they take upwards of 9 years to flower, and the poor mother bulb expires after the effort!  Makes you appreciate their beauty all the more.

Monday, 1 August 2011

August 1st - post "lite"

 Busy as a bee so no time for a proper post, but since summer is marching on, I wanted to capture a few more pictures of what's in bloom on August 1st.