UPDATE (April 10, 2013): My plants have flower buds!
Are you afraid to grow hellebore? I am. Like clematis, they are a plant that I have long associated with hoity-toity gardeners and their fancy pants gardens. Their ticket price doesn’t help matters. Hellebores are notoriously expensive plants, often coming in at the $20-30 mark in most retail garden centres. That’s a lot of money to sink into a plant that I am almost certain I will kill.
And then I met Barry Parker.
Barry loves hellebores. He also loves clematis (but that’s a story for another day). And you know what? Barry’s garden is awfully fancy. Few fully staffed, public gardens I have visited have been able to pull off what Barry achieves in his urban Toronto backyard. While the initial shock has worn off, after 4 years, it still blows my mind every time that I visit it.
It may be fancy and a little bit intimidating, but I never walk away from Barry’s garden feeling like a failure in my own. I think this is owing to Barry’s heart of gold and his cheerful, encouraging, and generous charm. Instead, I always leave Barry’s garden with a can-do attitude and the drive to do better. Whats more, having Barry as a friend has helped me come a long way in undoing old, self-imposed stereotypes about gardeners, plants, and gardens.
Dear Margaret: Those two words are how each “letter” in this new series will begin, whenever I write here to my friend Margaret Roach of A Way to Garden.
2013 is a banner year for me. In just under 5 months I will turn 40. Hello, overnight occurrences of strangely oversized chin hair, indeterminate body aches, and an unhealthy addiction to Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” Hello, mid-life crisis.
“So you’re scared and you’re thinking that maybe we ain’t that young anymore.”
I recently watched the comedy “This is 40” and while I have no illusions that a Hollywood film will “get me” and portray a reality that I know, I walked away feeling somewhat fortunate (or was it superior?) in that while my 40th may be A LOT flabbier and is not heralded forward with a full-service catered tent party in an expensive and dully landscaped flush suburban backyard, a decade’s worth of therapy has prepared me so that it is (at least I think) a lot less CRAYZZEE.
Anyways, just last month, my Internet website, “celebrated” its 13th webiversary. It’s hard to believe that I’ve been writing here about gardening in some form for 13 years. Did you say recently that you’ve been writing about gardening for 25 years? I never expected to be doing this for such a long time, but then again, I didn’t start off with many expectations period, so its all a bit of a surprise. 13 years later and I have changed careers, written books I didn’t know were in me, and experienced a host of wonderful, frightening, and sometimes surreal things… all because I wanted to create a love letter to plants and meet likeminded people. Life is funny.
All photos in this post are credited to Avant Gardens.
As a gardener with particular tastes and interests that border on obsession, it’s always a treat to meet someone who shares the same enthusiasm and passions. I was introduced to Katherine Tracy and her nursery Avant Gardens (located in Dartmouth, Massachusetts) through Margaret, who found out about this off-the-beaten-track plant treasure trove by word-of-mouth through some of her gardening friends. “She’s one of us,” Margaret explained, meaning to say through verbal shorthand that she’s a bit plant crazy (the best kind of crazy) and with impeccable taste to boot (because, of course, being somewhat mad, we happen to believe our own tastes in plants are impeccable).
Collectors of unusual and interesting plants since the 1980s, owners Katherine and Chris Tracey sell all manner of colourful foliage and dependable perennials. Like many of the most interesting nurseries, their business got started by way of a personal passion that simply got out of hand. They began doing mail order in 1997, focussing on uncommon annuals, but gradually moved on to include some of the perennials, trees, and shrubs they personally grew as well.
Dear Margaret: Those two words are how each “letter” in this new series will begin, whenever I write here to my friend Margaret Roach of A Way to Garden. Installments will include a letter from each of us, unplanned and posted simultaneously to our websites. It will be interesting to see how our correspondence develops and what similarities and differences occur between our two gardens: one urban and the other rural.
The first instalment coincides with the launch of Margaret’s new book — giveaway details can be found at the end of this post.
Margaret’s corresponding “Dear Gayla” letter for this week can be seen here.
Attached to my home is a south-facing, unheated porch that I use as a cold greenhouse of sorts. In the winter I store many potted half-hardy plants there with the most tender of the bunch huddled together against the brick of the house where they can benefit from a bit of passive heat. I long to line the windows along the east side in bubble wrap for added insulation, but the porch faces the street and there are already so many off-kilter things about us that sully our reputation locally as-is. Covering the windows in packaging materials may be one step too far. When it comes to the neighborhood sensibility, I generally try to keep my outward appearance on the side of eccentric, avoiding the line that crosses into street weirdo. Our previous neighborhood was full of freaks and weirdoes so we blended in easily.
The other morning I stepped into the greenhouse (I need to find another name for this space as it is not a “real” greenhouse) to check up on my plants and was horrified to discover that winter had well and truly arrived. It was my own fault; I have a bad tendency to push things further than they should go. I’d been half-bragging for months about how well even the most tender Pelargoniums (scented geraniums) were doing out there in the cold. They were flourishing and some were even blooming. I got cocky. Truth be told, we haven’t had a proper, true north winter in years and I was starting to believe that those days were over. I’d become too bold. I didn’t protect things as I should have, telling myself it wasn’t worth the bother. And then I woke up one day to find dozens of potted plants frozen.
No matter the season, there is always something of interest (many, many things of interest) going on in Barry’s garden and even though I know not to show up without a proper camera, I can’t deny that sometimes (most times) I am lazy and the camera stays at home. Of course, I always regret it later as I did when I visited his place on Friday to see what was new.
And what was new was everything. It was the day of the epic thaw. One day our city gardens are buried in snow, the likes of which we haven’t seen in ages, and the next the sun is shinning, the birds are getting busy, and some guy is traipsing down the street in a T-shirt and flip-flops like it’s August, except that it isn’t August it’s January, and it may be unseasonably warm, but it’s nowhere near Spring Break in Cancun 2013 (Spring Break! Woooo!). That dude is going to regret it next week when he’s stuck in the bathroom suffering the symptoms of the NoroVirus, I tell you what.
I love these first big thaws. First of all, they are a desperately needed reminder that the winter isn’t forever. Spring will come again. They also reveal that life has not ceased underneath the snow. Plants are alive. Some of them are green and fresh. Take this lush and very alive hellebore (above) in Barry’s garden. Before meeting Barry, I had never paid hellebores much mind. Now I can appreciate their merits, the main one being that they stay green year-round!
Some of them, like this Helleborus niger ‘Praecox’ bloom in December and January when most plants are months away from breaking dormancy, let alone making flowers. Let me repeat: I took this photo just a few days ago. In January. In Toronto. What a plant!