Flowery spotlight: Fireweed.

On a mid-July trip to northern Alberta, the roadsides were brimming with bright purple fireweed (Epilobium angustifolia, formerly Chamerion angustifolium); I don’t think I’ve seen that many plants in quite a few years.  While this beautiful wildflower isn’t considered noxious in this province, it has a rather aggressive growth habit (an understatement!) and most people don’t usually encourage it in the garden.

Fireweed is so-called because of its ability to be “first on the scene” and colonize burned land after a natural fire.  This may partially explain its abundance in northern Alberta, a region beset by several forest fires in recent years.   (In my reading, I came across this interesting notation, which remarked on the colonization of fireweed in Skamania County after the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980).  According to an article by Julie Walker in the Calgary Horticultural Society’s August/September 2012 issue of Calgary Gardening, fireweed will consume all of the potassium from burned soil and return it three-fold when the plant dies, thus rejuvenating the land.

As a bonus, fireweed is edible, too!  Tender young parts of the plant can be cooked into a variety of dishes such as stirfries and quiches.  The leaves and flowers are often added to salads.  Unfortunately, I didn’t think to sample the flowers while I was on our trip; I would have had to seek them out in an area less polluted by highway traffic.  There’s always next year!  🙂

Have you ever eaten fireweed?

Flowery spotlight: ‘Hansa’ rose.

(Photo credit:  R. Normandeau) 

In mid-June, my husband and I took a quick trip to northern Alberta to visit family.  While we were there, we had a chance to spend some time relaxing in my Mum and Dad’s garden.  At the time, the ‘Hansa’ roses were just getting started on a real show, heavy with buds and open flowers.  I’m a huge fan of this rugosa rose:  they’re extremely cold hardy (zone 3), and they have exceptionally fragrant bright purple-red blooms that really make a statement in the garden.   Characteristically wrinkled bright green leaves and fierce thorns add extra visual interest (the latter also keep the critters out of the garden and offer a constant reminder to wear a good pair of gloves while pruning!).   Give them some room to grow:  ‘Hansas’ are a large shrub rose, reaching up to 2 metres in height, with a 1.8 metre spread.

My parents have planted their ‘Hansa’ roses alongside a fabulous fence/gate/arbour combination that my Dad designed and built, a beautiful entrance to the back yard.

(This photo was taken just after installation; the roses have greatly matured now!  Photo credit:  H. and R. Mueller)

Other rugosa roses include ‘Henry Hudson’ (white flowers, more compact size), and pink-flowering ‘Therese Bugnet’ (which has a distinctly Alberta connection:  it was introduced in 1950 by rose breeder George Bugnet, in the town of Legal).

Are you growing any rugosa roses in your garden?  

Read some more about rugosa roses at http://www.rosemagazine.com/articles04/rugosa_roses/  and http://gardening.about.com/od/rose1/p/Rugosa-Roses.htm.

Pest to watch (out for): Spittlebug.

I haven’t whined about it for a little while now (and I’m sure you’re grateful!), but up until this morning, when that unfamiliar yellow ball in the sky finally graced us with its presence, the rains have fallen on Calgary pretty much non-stop since the end of May.  According to the Government of Canada’s National Climate Data, we’ve actually only had four days this month without precipitation, and we’ve gotten a whopping 138.6 mm of rain so far (we usually average about 75 mm or so in June, our wettest month).  All this humidity has brought some pretty interesting plant pests to the garden, and one of them is the spittlebug.

I’ve seen this creature’s work before, but only once in my garden, last June in a mat of ‘Flashing Lights’ dianthus.   Usually, I’ve come across it on wildflowers while I’ve been out hiking.   This year, the evidence is everywhere, however:  gobs of white frothy stuff wedged in the stems of various perennials in my garden.

I’ve never bothered to identify the source of the yucky substance until now, but a quick glance inside the book Garden Bugs of Alberta (by Ken Fry, Doug Macaulay and Don Williamson – 2008, Lone Pine Publishing) tells me that my garden flowers have a case of Philaenus spumarius (meadow spittlebug).  Spittlebugs like to make Slurpees out of plant fluids, which they do by piercing holes in the stems of the victims.  (Apparently they really go after strawberries and peas; I do grow alpine strawberries but I haven’t seen any signs of the bugs on them so far).  The goopy white froth is made by the pests while they are in nymphal stage:  it’s an appetizing combo of plant fluid, air bubbles, and bug mucus (is it breakfast-time as you read this?  If so, I apologize).  The froth is used as a protective blanket over the nymph so they can eat in comfort.

To combat my spittlebug issues, I went outside and spritzed the froth with a diluted mixture of dishsoap and H2O.  You don’t really need to go the whole insecticidal route with them, as the goal is to remove the spittle and the eggs that the creatures may have laid, and blasting them with a jet of plain water will do the trick nicely.  The adult spittlebugs will feed on your plants after emerging and their eggs are capable of withstanding our cold winters, so eliminating the eggs is very important.

Have you ever had spittlebugs in your garden?  What did you do to combat them? 

Of full rain barrels and unwanted pests.

Weather update in Calgary:  it’s still raining.  It would be okay to feel this coastal, I guess, except for the fact that we’re lacking a nearby ocean.  So, really, it’s not okay at all.  But we’re a chipper lot here – I can’t tell you how many times this week that I heard people announce, quite cheerfully, “At least my rain barrels are full!”   I went out this morning in the persistent drizzle and planted an ‘Aunt Molly’ ground cherry seedling that I had started indoors a couple of months ago – of course, I am completely aware that we’ll have frost right around the time the fruits are ripening on the plant (that is, assuming it even survives to bear fruit), but I simply have to make an attempt.  It’s “rain barrel-full” optimism!

On a slightly less positive note, the rain will bring with it some additional problems; once the weather clears and the summer heat begins (see, there’s that optimism again!), we’re going to notice all kinds of “pest issues” in our gardens and our homes.   A quick hunt on the ‘net brings with it some interesting pest control strategies…let me know if you’ve tried any of these, or if they’re simply myths:

To repel ants– shave off slices of fresh cucumber and place them around the affected locations.  The ants hate cucumber and will usually beat a hasty exit.  I’ve actually done this and I found that some of the ants didn’t retreat; instead, they climbed onto the cucumbers and sort of floundered around until they died.   I then picked up the cuke chunks and threw them out.  It didn’t take long before my ant infestation came to an end.  This one really works.


To get rid of mosquitoes in your outdoor living room/kitchen:  throw a handful of sage or rosemary sprigs on your barbeque coals while you’re grilling.  The smoke and scent will keep the moskies away and you’ll have extra flavour for your meats and veggies.   I’ve never tried this, but it’s a great tip for us Canadians, ‘cos we have mosquitoes here as big as houses.

For slugs:  run a line of ground ginger along the perimeter of plants you want to protect.  Slugs hate the stuff, it irritates them.  Used coffee grounds work the same way, supposedly.  I’ve yet to find a slug in my garden (please don’t let this be the year), so I’ve never attempted either remedy.

If you have black flies, try crushing some fresh mint and placing it in cheesecloth bags around the house, especially near windowsills and doors.  If it doesn’t work, you can always use the mint to make mojitos!!!  (Rain barrel-full, I’m telling you!).  🙂

To make moths stay out of your closets and dressers, put cinnamon sticks or cloves in a cheesecloth satchet and place them inside the furniture.  It will smell great and is definitely not as toxic as moth balls.  Has anyone tried this?

If you’ve got a problem with sowbugs and you can’t seem to get them out of all of the nooks and crannies of your house foundation, go and get yourself some big cobs of fresh, juicy corn.  Grill up the corn on the barbeque, slather some herb butter on it, and enjoy it with a nice beef/bison/elk steak/roasted eggplant.  Then take the gnawed-on cobs and set them on the ground along the perimeter of the house.   The sowbugs will be attracted to the corn and you can just collect the cobs and throw them in a bucket of soapy water to kill the bugs.   Again, I’m not plagued with sowbugs – does this seem like a good strategy to you?

In the war against aphids, make a foliar spray out of water and chopped potato or tomato leaves (plants of the Solanaceae family have poisonous leaves) or the leaves of rhubarb or elderberries (which contain high concentrations of toxic oxalic acid).  This seems like it should work, but I wonder how many applications you have to make?

If earwigs are a bother, try placing shallow bowls filled with soy sauce and vegetable oil at the base of the affected plants.  The insects will fall in and drown.  If anyone knows if this solution works, please let me know.  I’m still confused as to whether or not earwigs are naturally clumsy and can’t hang onto the plants they’re munching on….  😉

If you are plagued with hares, as I am, you can try sprinkling flour on young seedlings or garlic powder on mature plants – the long-ears won’t touch them.  This remains to be seen – I will definitely test this and keep you updated.

Starting your own seeds?  Apparently you can brew up some chamomile tea and use it to irrigate your young seedlings (instead of mere H2O) – the chamomile will help prevent fusarium wilt (damping off).   This is one I simply must try!  As well, you can make a foliar spray out of chamomile, which will combat powdery mildew.

Speaking of powdery mildew, supposedly if you mix equal parts of water and milk and spray it on the affected plants, the mildew will eventually go away.  I guess you have to do this repeatedly, however, and wait a whole week in between sprays, so the whole process is probably lengthier than most people would care for.  What do you think?

Here are some websites to try for more down-home pest control remedies (and related topics):

http://eartheasy.com/live_natpest_control.htm  General insect control, including great tips about making natural mosquito repellant from Thai lemongrass
http://eartheasy.com/grow_nat_pest_cntrl.htm  Illustrations of beneficial insects and some Integrated Pest Management tips
http://www.colostate.edu/Depts/CoopExt/4DMG/PHC/psticid2.htm  Pesticides: Natural Isn’t Always Best – interesting perspective, a must-read
(As most of these articles point out, you have to apply any pest control solution with caution.  And, of course, remember that some of these remedies aren’t tested and true – and certainly not scientific!).
There are a million other home remedies like these for home owners and gardeners – do you have any particular ones that you use in your own garden? 

Flowery blurbs, volume 10.

While I make short work of that milk chocolate bunny I accidentally bought the other day, feel free to take a gander at this week’s Flowery Blurbs:

Use plant dyes for Easter.

I found this timely holiday post at Simple Bites, and was inspired to create the multi-hued eggs pictured below (using tumeric, blueberries, and paprika).  You don’t need those dye kits from the store – just raid your spice rack and your freezer! 

Seriously old wood plates go digital.

Romeyn Beck Hough’s book The American Woods (written between 1888 and 1910) has been freshly digitized and made available for everyone’s viewing pleasure at the History of Forestry website.  It’s a fascinating look at over 350 different types of North American trees, with detailed text and cross-sections of each.  The book is all the more important because some of these species no longer exist. 

When earthworms go bad.  (And no, I’m not talking about the denizens of my new vermicomposter).

A recent article suggests that while earthworms are amazingly useful in the garden, they do not work to promote healthy forests.  The amount of leaf litter that earthworms can consume seems to be at the root of the problem…pun intended.  Read all about it here.

Get a buggy education.

Olds College continues their 2012 Hort Week Speaker Series with a fantastic talk by their resident insect guru, Dr. Ken Fry.  Check out his full lecture about creating Environmentally Friendly Yards here.

Sweet edible flowers. 

I plan to plant a whole bunch of calendula this spring, to use in my fledgling attempts at dyeing fabric using plants from my own garden…it just so happens calendula flowers are edible as well, so I will be sure to try them out in my microgreen mixes in addition to throwing them in the dyepot.  If you want to try something REALLY creative with edible flowers, check out this blog post from Sprinkle Bakes, where gorgeous viola blossoms take centre stage in lollipop candy.  I dare you not to drool over the photos.

Peace and quiet in the Winter Garden.

Although it officially opened in 2010, I hadn’t yet been to the Winter Garden in Calgary’s ultra-modern, 38-storey Jamieson Place, right in the heart of downtown.  Appropriately, the snow was lightly falling and the wind was blowing when my husband and I finally made our outing to the Garden last Friday afternoon.  What a treat for a chilly day!  A quick ride up the escalator from street level takes you adjacent to the Plus 15 walkway system, where the 25,000 square foot garden (the largest indoor garden in Canada) is located.  Minimalist in design, the Winter Garden features massive stands of tall black bamboo and snake plants (Sansevieria trifasciata) framing a beautiful dark infinity pool and pods of black leather couches for seating.   Exterior glass walls border the garden on the north and the east, with a skylight above – and even on such a cloudy, grey day, the light quality was impressive.  And glass – in sculptural form – hangs from the ceiling above the pool:  famed artist Dale Chihuly‘s stunning three-piece installation Winter Garden Chandeliers seems to warmly glow from within.

Dale Chihuly’s Winter Garden Chandeliers were made of over 400 pieces of glass and assembled in the garden itself. 

But the standout feature of the Winter Garden is the biowall that anchors the west side.  An incredible 22 feet high and 100 feet wide over two panels, the wall contains 20,000 plants (over 20 different varieties).  The wall is a hydroponic system, with the plants plugged into a soilless grid.  Fertilizer injections and drip irrigation are governed by a computer.

The Winter Garden biowall

The coolest thing about the wall is that it was designed to artfully represent the foothills and majesty of the Canadian Rockies, which lie to the west of Calgary:  each plant variety was deliberately chosen according to foliage, texture and form  to stand in for the land’s striking topography.   While I admit, I couldn’t quite “see” the geographical influence on the piece, especially up close, it is simply amazing to stand there and gape at all those plants in such a perfect and pleasing arrangement.

The Winter Garden is a definite must-see (at any time of year) if you find yourself in downtown Calgary.  There is a cafe on the main floor as well, so you can buy yourself a tea and take it upstairs to enjoy it in the peace and serenity of the garden.  If I worked in the area I would spend every lunch break there!  🙂

And see more of Dale Chihuly’s art. 

Book reviews for spring planning.

If you’re like me, and you’re living in a location where the spring storms have brought snow and your cautiously-emerging early-flowering bulbs are buried under the white stuff, you’ll be needing a little pick-me-up to tide you through until the weather turns around in earnest.  Try out these books for a double whammy of eye-candy and excellent information:

The Beginner’s Guide to Growing Heirloom Vegetables by Marie Iannotti (2011, Timber Press, Inc., Portland)

Okay, so I may have drooled a little on this book – hopefully I won’t get fined for the damage when I return it to the library.  It’s just that it’s so unbelievably pretty, you can’t help but ooh and ahh over all of the sumptuous photographs.  I keep opening it, just to take a random gawk at the ‘Chioggia’ beets in cross-section, the ‘Japanese White Egg’ eggplants (which actually look like perfect white chicken eggs), or the beauteous purple-flowered ‘Di Sicilia Viletto’ cauliflower.  Or what about feathery-leafed fennel ‘Zefa Fino’ or the potent brilliant orange ‘Fatali’ peppers, or the watermelon radish, with its bright white skin and “red meat” inside?  And although you could treat this as merely the world’s most tantalizing picture book, Iannotti gives you all the information you need to know to grow all of these wonderful vegetables, including what’s most important:  how to save the seed and preserve these heirlooms for the future.  Add to this the fantastic stories of the origins of some of these veggies and you’ve got my hands-down favourite gardening book of the season so far.

Okay, but then there is Carolyn Herriot’s The Zero-Mile Diet:  A Year-Round Guide to Growing Organic Food (2010, Harbour Publishing, B.C.).  Another book that is blissfully heavy on the seed-saving side of things (seed-saving methods are provided for every crop listed in the book – how amazing is that?), The Zero-Mile Diet is seriously fun to pore through.  While there are A-Z sections for veggies and herbs, there is also a large chapter devoted to fruit crops, and every inch of the book is loaded with extras:  inspirational quotes, historical facts, food recipes (for humans AND for plants – did you know how to make a nutritious fertilizer from comfrey before this?), cultural recommendations, charts and tables, and more photos than you could shake a stick at.  Oh, and there are chicken and duck raising tips in here, too!   As if that wasn’t enough, it’s all laid out to follow a year in the garden:  what to plant and when, what to harvest and when – and while the West coast of Canada has a decidedly different climate than we do here on the Prairies, we can still use this template (we just have to compress it a little and move it ahead a few months.  Okay, and we can’t grow everything.  But we can dream!).  The key word with this book is “sustainability” and there are examples of it in spades – it’s really a treasure trove of useful, practical information.

Hands down, one of the best books on the planet if you want to learn how to improve your soil organically and keep it healthy and viable for your plants is Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis’ Teaming with Microbes:  The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web (Revised Edition, 2010, Timber Press, Inc., Portland).  While it’s a little textbook-y compared to the likes of Herriot and Iannotti’s books, it’s not about the glamourous side of gardening.  Teaming with Microbes is all about what makes up garden soil, all the fungi and bacteria and mold and spores and critters that give the soil life – and in turn, help your plants take up moisture and nutrients so that they can thrive and produce.  You want to know the science behind compost?  It’s in this book.  So is a marvelously detailed discussion of mycorrhizal fungi.  And mulch.  And leaf litter.  And, most importantly, how to maintain a healthy lawn and garden just by understanding your soil and knowing what to contribute, and when, so that your plants get the best leg up.