Wednesday, 23 March 2011

On something of a setback...

With spring officially having arrived this week, and seemingly all other gardeners in the Blogosphere enjoying rising temperatures, rising sap and thrilling signs of sprouts, buds and even flowers, abounding all around, here on the shores of Lake Ontario, we've had a slight setback today.  Despite our deceptively southerly latitude (Toronto is on a parallel with Cannes), this is the scene that we were greeted with this morning.

Several inches of snow and the forecast through the weekend indicates that we won't see daytime highs rise above zero until well through next week.  Not an entirely untypical climatic event for late March, but highly regrettable seeing as I had only just watched the last of the big winter snowpile in the back yard disappearing last weekend.  Still, on the bright side, and on the condition that my crocuses haven't turned to mush under all this, it does allow just a little more time for planning some new projects for the 2011 growing season in my tiny yard.

A few weeks back, I voraciously watched all six episodes of Carol Klein's "Life in a Cottage Garden", and her infectious enthusiasm, wild hairdo and even wilder antics with the pruning shears (I was quite sure she was going to tumble to her death while clambering a rickety ladder to the top of a sizeable apple tree to remove an overgrown tangle of clematis), provided the impetus to take charge of a situation that has been hampering my gardening efforts for the last few years.

In the front yard, there's a sulking teenager of a locust tree.  It's always the last tree anywhere in the city to get out of bed in the spring and actually put forth it's buds.  When they do finally surface, the leaves are quickly pock marked by dense aphid populations, and incredible mealy bug orgies, which turn  branches and trunk alike a dusty white, much to the delight of passing sparrows, who proceed to gorge themselves silly.

 When the sparrows finish their work, the first flush of growth, tattered and torn from the feeding frenzy, finally can take it no longer, and they give up the good fight and drop off, around mid-July.  Meanwhile, the shade loving perennials (that were planted in said shade) start to complain at the lack thereof.  The ensuing midsummer Toronto combination of high heat and humidity, with little rainfall to moisten the clay, by now cracking and dehydrated, that passes as soil in my garden conspires to further stress the tender ferny fronds, and what hasn't wilted, will then succumb to a bout of powdery mildew.  Around this point of the summer, I will generally vow to chop the tree up for firewood at the earliest opportunity.  However, to add insult to injury, teenage infestations having passed, the locust tree will get a second wind by early August, and burst forth with lush and lovely frondy leaves.  My frustrations will start to melt away, even if those few sun loving plants which were planted when the tree was much smaller and didn't cast quite so much shade, will start to stretch and strain themselves upwards in a futile effort to feel the warming rays of the sun on what have now turned to insipid, pale and unusually stunted flowers.  But the optimist in me will look forward fondly to the promise of the intensely golden autumn tints normally associated with locust trees, when the days start to shorten again, and a nip is in the air.  But lo, a subtle shift from green to dull green is all that is achieved before the tree is denuded in the first storm of the autumn, somewhere about Halloween. And the cycle of frustration and resentment continues.

But that was before Carol's sage words.  She showed little mercy when she had determined that a "plant's time had come" and would as quickly haul away the unwanted carcass as knit a pair of socks at the guillotine.  Spurred on by her decisiveness, and fearful of the fact that the locust still has years of growth ahead and is already endangering the house and the electrical wires above it, I have finally made the call to an arborist, received the quote, and signed the final death warrant.

Now it's time to start thinking about the possibilities once all that lovely space and sunshine returns.....I have in mind a pair of espalier apples, which would add some wonderful architectural interest next time we have a spring snow storm, don't you think?

Something to plan this spring over hot chocolate in front of a roaring log fire.

Monday, 21 March 2011

On Things I Like

While some people might be of a persuasion to like raindrops and roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens, my favourite things in gardens or the great outdoors are almost always associated with wafts of delicious fragrance, carried on soft, warm breezes.  It's always amazing to me just how immediately and vividly the recall of an olfactory memory will transport me back to a wonderful vacation, summer evenings with friends, childhood walks or a first love.

Here are just a few of my favourite things when it comes to plant fragrance and the triggering of remembrances of things past........

The sweet, almost tropical coconut-like smell of gorse, in the Western Highlands of Scotland - a complete surprise when encountered in such northerly climes and coming from such an impenetrable, ragtaggle, barbed and spiney thicket.  Memories of my summer job at the Isle of Raasay hotel, before the final year of my undergraduate degree, and the joy of hiking for miles in complete isolation, with some of the most breathtaking views imaginable.

The overwhelmingly intoxicating fragrance of provencal jasmine, never cloying and always creating an insatiable appetite for just one more sip from that delicious star. Enjoyed on a perfectly still May evening, whilst sitting on an ancient, hand hewn stone bench, listening to the distant chatter of twelve of my nearest and very dearest, muted to a contenting murmer by the delicate splashing and gurgling of water flowing from a lion fountainhead, punctuated by sounds of swallows swooping past, and the quarter hourly chimes of the centuries old village church clock.  Memories of bliss on my 40th birthday in the village of Cabrieres D'Avignon in the Luberon.

Clouds of gingery, lemon tang, swirling past as I cycle home to my Summertown student digs, past the floodlit dreaming spires of Oxford, drunk on the thrill of warm, moist, fragrant air bathing my skin as I whizz along, drunk on the spine tingling, tummy twittering sensation of an, as yet, unreturned and undeclared first love.  Memories of magnolia grandiflora clothing the quads of ancient Oxonian colleges.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

On the cusp of the new season.

Spring in Toronto has always been challenging for me.

My birthday falls just on the better side of the vernal equinox, so I've always had an event to help me gauge the progress of spring.  Even in my childhood years in the North of Scotland, by the time my birthday arrived in late March, aconites and snowdrops had already grasped at their chance to flower in late January and early February, and crocuses had their petals splayed wide open to bask in the chilly early spring sun.  Daffodil buds would be showing a tantalizing yellow streak, promising to burst open with reckless abandon to reflect and intensify the pale yellow of the weak sunshine, urging on longer days, and the promise of the warm, lilac-heavy breezes of June.  Dismal grey slates that had reflected leaden skies for months would be taking on an almost iridescent sheen, as snow and sleet softened into refreshing and revitalizing showers, interspersing skies of fleeting clouds and elusive rainbows.  In the hedges, birds would be busily building nests, and chicks would be rising out of perfect, tiny blue eggs, triggering a flurry of consternation and frenzied gathering of worms, and a watching out for magpies and a harrying of skulking cats.  A time of promise and fragile dreams of a gentler season to come.

In Toronto, however, spring can be less of a season, and more of an isolated incident.  No long, lingering, slipping and evolving from one season to another.  No, a Toronto spring can pounce on you quite unawares, rather as though some preternatural hand had flicked the switch, bringing a giant furnace room into action for the season.  What was the biggest snow pile you can ever remember just yesterday, can quite literally evaporate overnight, more likely revealing a scene littered with the refuse of other human lives, than the cheery optimism of a carpet of spring flowers.  When the soil finally relaxes from it's frigid rigidity, crocuses, daffodils and tulips flower nearly simultaneously, fervently trying to get the breeding season over and done with, before excessive blasts of heat and humidity frizzle their delicate petals, and ballooning neighbours, like peonies and hostas, jostle and crowd them into obscurity.

And yet....sigh!  Gentle reader, there is nothing quite as satisfying and life affirming in the world, as knowing you've made it through yet another freezing rain, slush and snow-clad winter, to set aside snow boots, and ice scrapers, shovels and scarves, and emerge out into the sunshine, and see the garden grabbing at life with both hands, and shouting "hurrah"!