Archive for February, 2013



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The Jewel Box Garden by Thomas Hobbs. Raincoast Books 2004.

Winter is the perfect time for mulling over ways to improve on your own garden and to discover new ideas for next season. To this end, reading about the gardens other dedicated gardeners have created can be very fruitful and satisfying. One of the books I enjoyed this winter was Thomas Hobbs’ The Jewel Box Garden.

Jewel Box is a treat for winter-weary eyes, being filled from cover to cover with the beautiful photographs of David McDonald. Hobbs own garden is situated around his stunning 1930s Mission Revival home, nestled on a cliffside high above Spanish Banks beach. The site itself is so beautiful, overlooking as it does ocean, mountains and city, that I imagine one could gaze all day without ever tiring of the view. With limited gardening opportunities, Hobbs suggests every inch of available space should be taken advantage of to create a sparkling jewel-box of a garden, filled with colourful, eye-pleasing combinations. Although the west coast region around Vancouver, British Columbia is mild compared to much of Canada, I still spotted plants I would like to try, and interesting garden ideas that would be applicable anywhere.


The Jewel Box Garden offers more than just eye-candy. Hobbs’ writing is witty and opinionated and fun to read. My favorite paragraph was this take on suburban yards:

One of the mysteries of my life is repeated every day. I drive to and from work and cannot help but notice block after block of very average-income homes that appear hopelessly un-gardeny. It is almost a case of one-upmanship to be the most unplanted, least cared for but absolutely occupied. To me, it is a drive through the Valley of Death. Expensive cars, new basketball hoops, satellite television receivers and white plastic patio furniture are everywhere. I ask myself, “What do these people care about, anyway?” Occasionally I’ll spot a stranded tree peony, blooming its heart out, stoned on ugly. Or a maypole-type clothes-line bedecked with absolutely fried plastic hanging baskets. The botanical equivalent of a car crash.

LOL! I have to admit to having had much the same thoughts. Who are these people, who have time to surround themselves with nothing but ugly? Life is too short! As for basket trees, my judgement isn’t quite as harsh. I think of them as a sort of garden kitsch, the velvet Elvis paintings of gardening.

pot pole

In The Roots of My Obsession, Hobbs writes of an early infatuation with plants, in spite of the fact that no one in his family had the slightest interest in gardening.

Plants adopted me, I think. My parents did their best, but with six kids and their own drinking problems, I was up for grabs. Plants led me into a series of successful plant-related businesses. They steered me away from university, and wisely so. Plants decided to use me, I think. Or was it the other way round? I hope not.

Hobbs entry is one of thirty short essays in The Roots of My Obsession, in which gardeners write about how they became interested in gardening, or what it is about gardening that keeps them digging. Included are many well-known garden writers such as Penelope Hobhouse, Rick Darke, Ken Druse, Fergus Garrett, and a host of others. It’s a light, entertaining read and its fun and enlightening to learn of how others came to this shared passion.


The Roots of My Obsession ed. Thom. cooper. Timber Press 2012

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Unless we take action on climate change, future generations will be roasted, toasted, fried and grilled.’ Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund.

Elizabeth May, MP, on climate change action:

When a situation is as desperate as the climate crisis and yet, year after year, no leadership emerges, it is hard to believe that the situation may be changing. Like Charlie Brown running up to Lucy and a waiting football, one learns to expect disappointment. It is hard to put credence in the rhetoric of those in power.

In Canada, things are so bad that we don’t even have hypocritical lip service to the crisis. We have silence.

However, over the last month, in a series of statements by some of the most powerful people on Earth, the threat of the climate crisis seems to be on the agenda as never before.

On January 21, President Barack Obama made the issue a key portion of his second inauguration address. He made reference to superstorm Sandy, the heat waves and record-breaking extreme weather events, and said:

‘We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms…

‘We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries, we must claim its promise.’

Just days later, at the World Economic Summit in Davos, Switzerland, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, delivered a stunning speech. (The International Monetary Fund has done nothing but worsen environmental protections anywhere in the world in which it has delivered a prescription.) Mme Lagarde, having outlined the major threats to global economic stability, stated that climate was a larger threat. Describing it as ‘the greatest economic challenge of the 21st century,’ she said: ‘Increasing vulnerability from resource scarcity and climate change, with the potential for major social and economic disruption; this is the real wild card in the pack.’

In response to a question from the audience, she said: ‘Unless we take action on climate change, future generations will be roasted, toasted, fried and grilled.’ That would have be a strong statement from the head of Greenpeace; from the head of the International Monetary Fund, it is jaw-dropping.

Again, within days, the new president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, wrote an opinion piece for the January 28 Washington Post, urging urgent climate action. ‘After the hottest year on record in the United States—a year in which Hurricane Sandy caused billions of dollars in damage, record droughts scorched farmland in the Midwest and our organization reported that the planet could become more than 7 degrees warmer—what are we waiting for? We need to get serious fast. The planet, our home, can’t wait.’

Add to this mix a very tough letter of resignation from US Energy Secretary Steven Chu, lambasting those who undermined his efforts to promote renewable energy and parting shots from outgoing Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, and it is hard not to see that a full court press from the Bretton Woods Institutions has lined up behind the US president to demand climate action.

The White House will still face climate deniers and obstructionists and grid-lock in Congress. Recently, some states are considering legislation to mandate that school children be taught anti-science on the climate threat. We are, by no means, assured of action, and if we were, could it be tough enough? It would have to be comprehensive and commit to deep cuts in greenhouse gases to make a real difference. But with the appointment of John Kerry as the new Secretary of State, at least it has renewed hope that the XL Pipeline will be turned down. I will be in Washington before publication of this article to urge that the US Administration reject the pipeline and move to real climate action.

We are running out of time for action. It always seemed that Barack Obama understood the threat. For his first term, he did very little, but he did manage to ensure that the economic stimulus package was focused on green technology. When he spoke of the economic potential of clean technology and green energy in his inauguration address, he was also speaking to a reality he knows well.

For Canada, the potential of clean tech is also substantial. According to a recent report from the Pembina Institute, Canada is falling behind the rest of the world in this key sector. The report estimates that Canada has the potential to build a $60-billion clean tech sector by 2020. We need to alert Canadians to the potential for our economy of acting to reduce greenhouse gases as forcefully as we warn that failure to act could condemn us to an unliveable world.

A series of speeches calling for climate action from unlikely sources is no guarantee of action. Nevertheless, it is significant and suggests that something new is afoot.

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Winter Barn

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Here’s my little gang, standing at the barn door, waiting for me to let them in for their supper. In summer, they stay outside day and night, but in winter, they enjoy the night in their comfortable stalls where they are protected from the worst winter has to offer.

Usually, when I go out to the barn to let them in as dusk falls, they are waiting for me at the door. Some nights, though, they are hanging out down the field, and I have to go fetch them. When that happens, I catch the leader of the pack and the others follow us back to the barn. Who do you think I catch?


Not Czarina. Although she is senior mare, she has not mellowed in old age. She is crotchety and defiant and not a leader of horses.


Not Diva. As junior mare, she is cowed by Czarina’s aggressive behaviour and hangs back when Czarina is about.


Not Teddy. Although Teddy loves his supper ration and is anxious to eat, he is young and frisky and not inclined to be led.

That just leaves Louis. That’s right, little Louis is the Boss. When I go out to bring the herd in, I loop my arm over Louis’s neck and he comes along sweetly. The others quickly fall into line, first Louis’s pal Teddy, and then Czarina and finally Diva, bringing up the rear. They all follow Louis’s lead and march quietly into their own stalls for supper.


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Across the day, Tonka and Capone go about their feline business in a solitary feline way. But when it’s time for a catnap, they’re often to be found curled up together. Capone is the instigator of this togetherness. He seeks out Tonka, and squeezes himself into whatever space Tonka has left to him. Tonka, for his part, is content to let Capone join him. Best friends forever.

In a household of independent cats, these two stand out as good buddies. What draws them together? The dynamics of animal relationships are inscrutable to we mere humans.


More puzzling is the relationship between Momcat and Mikey. Mikey, litter mate to Arthur, is one of Momcat’s three offspring who live with us. In spite of having lived in our house for four years, Momcat remains wild at heart. She allows no human hand to touch her, and spends her days alone, often hidden under the bed or some other place where she feels safe. She keeps herself to herself. Except when it comes to Mikey.

Momcat loves Mikey. There’s no other way of understanding it. When Mikey returns from an outing, Momcat rushes to greet him. She follows him around the house, and eats when Mikey eats. Mikey accepts her attention, but doesn’t seek out his mom in the dedicated way that she sticks with him. Funnily enough, although they often lie in close proximity, they rarely curl up together. Here’s Momcat, perched on the chair arm, as Mikey sprawls on the seat. Watching over her beloved son.


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Icicle Fortress

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What a rollercoaster ride this winter has been! We’ve had plenty of snow and strings of extremely cold days punctuated by record-breaking thaws. On Wednesday, January 30th, the previous Ottawa record of 5.6 degrees C was shattered when the temperature climbed to 11.6 C. Today, just over a week later, a major snowstorm has been sweeping through. The thaw had reduced our snow cover to a few inches. The photo above was taken in the morning as the storm was settling in for the day. By evening, we had a fresh mantle of snow nearly a foot deep.

It’s a taste of the winter weather extremes we can expect as climate change continues to take hold. There’s a good article on the role of climate change on winter weather linked here.


Fortunately, RailGuy and I didn’t have to travel anywhere today, and, except for periodic episodes of snowshovelling, spent a pleasant day indoors by the fire. It was an ideal day for a little winter gardening, browsing through all those delicious seed catalogues that arrived over the last month or so and imagining the return of the green world. It’s time to get seed orders placed.

One of the plants that has caught my eye when we have visited other gardens over the past few years is a flowering tobacco variety, Nicotiana sylvestris. It’s the white-flowered plant in the foreground of the border pictured below. This planting was featured at Parc Marie-Victorin in Kingsey Falls, Quebec, which I wrote about here.


Nicotianas (pronounced nih-koe-shee-AY-nah according to Fine Gardening magazine) are fragrant annuals suitable for full sun to partly shaded areas of the garden. Smaller varieties are usually available at most places that carry bedding plants in the spring, but I have never come across this larger member of the family, Nicotiana sylvestris. Consequently, I decided to try growing my own from seed this year, and have ordered a packet from Thompson & Morgan. After extensive perusal of the catalogue, I settled on Amaranthus caudatus ‘Fat Spike’ and a few other choice varieties to round out my order. I’ve dispatched my order and now I can sit back and dream of a perfect garden…without having to lift a finger. At least for now.


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