Monday, December 10, 2012

Making A Rustic Wreath

I have been following Michelena at her new Rocky Mountain Wreath workshop in Calgary, Alberta. Here is a little video I made of her and her staff hard at work for the Christmas season. Enjoy!



PS. If this doesn't work here for some reason check out YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Na7H7HxgE8

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Tsk Tsk- YOU really should clean your tools


It’s a common problem. Everyone thinks they are a designer. No one wants to be in maintenance. It’s just not sexy enough. It’s dirty fingernails versus dreamy figurines. 



And I should know. I help people design their gardens. I don’t help them maintain them. I speak to groups about planning great vistas and intimate garden corners. I don’t get out and pull their weeds. I am guilty as charged. And yet in my own yard weeding is something I love doing – puttering around planting, pulling weeds, rearranging perennials, seeding vegetables, tugging out old overgrown shrubs, trimming off offending branches. It is a hobby and a vocation – but only in my own yard. Gardening gives me a reason to relax. It is mindless once it is underway.But sometimes it is tough to get the train moving down the track.

I am not sure how my tools got into so much trouble. One day I was reliably snipping and trimming and the next day the shears seized up and would not open after a cut. They were clogged with years of tree sap and rust. It was so annoying.  You would think the maintenance ferries would have stopped by to help out.  

Instead of cleaning and polishing my hand shears after using them (also called secateurs if you are in horticulture school) I was just dumping them in the tool shed between uses. Because I am a garden writer I get free samples of the newest and best tools and I have added those to my growing collection. When I moved households recently I collected together the various shears and took a look at them. My beautiful tools, including a pair I got, as weddings present 35 years ago, were all mucked up. I had to pry the shears open with two hands to make a cut and then they stayed closed and I had to pry them open again to cut again.  It was time to start a maintenance program.

Luckily it is winter- I have started some lettuce under grow lights and have been doing odd occasional jobs in the garden but there isn’t a real need for me outdoors right now. So I decided to clean shears. Of course after the move the honing stone (still in its original packet from Lee Valley Tools) went missing. No need to buy anything special this time- I went to Home Hardware and bought their cheapest stone and honing oil to pour on it. The oil helps the stone sharpen better.

I lined up the tools and took them apart to clean them. Yes- you can also sharpen the blades leaving them on the handle.  If you have a cheaper pair they might not even come apart. But I don’t believe in half measures. I loosened the main bolt on my 35-year-old Swiss Felco’s. Into soapy water they went. Then I tackled my French Sandvik’s, and Bahco’s and Finish Fiskar’s. I wiped them vigorously with an oily rag to clean away dirt and sap. Adding a drop of oil to the honing stone I made circular motions, running the blade over the stone in tiny sweeps.

After reassembly I tested the blades. I was cutting paper with tools that would only rip bark and smash cambium a few minutes earlier. I am back in business. Too bad I don’t do this maintenance thing for a living. It’s easier than thinking up planting designs and creating concepts for talks. But at least I now know if I feel like delaying putting that next talk together or stalling on writing an article there is something else to occupy my time. And I plan to do it more often. Even, I considered, after every time I use a tool. But wait. I still have plenty of edges to sharpen on shovels, and forks and spades.  I better get at it. It’s looking like a long winter.


Monday, October 22, 2012

Grafted Tomatoes: Scary Franken-Fruit?


Brandywine tomato in my greenhouse this summer could have been even
 better if I had grown it grafted on to a hardy root stock.
Everyone who has eaten a store bought tomato has eaten a grafted tomato.

I have been humbled. My garden wisdom suddenly seems feeble, lacking and inadequate. After 30 years of reading, writing and speaking about gardening I found out there was a huge whole in my brain bank.

I found out about grafted tomato plants last week, and after hearing loads of testimonials,  life for me, as a gardener and tomato grower has changed forever. I found out why grafted tomatoes are not the weird Franken-food I had considered them. I found out they are better in every way than seed started heirlooms or even the latest hybrids.

So just as I finish eating this summer’s harvest, I am already planning for big changes in my garden next year. And I am excited about it.

What are grafted tomatoes? Well, just like grafted apples or pears different tomatoes are now pieced together.  Yes, two distinctly different plants with different features are cut and connected.

One plant is grown for its hardy vigorous disease resistant roots. The other plant is grown because of its luscious, delicious fruit. Maybe your favourite tomato is the super sweet Sungold cherry tomato or maybe it is the always reliable heirloom Brandywine.
Sungold tomatoes are super sweet. They
could produce more fruit if they were grafted.


Either way the fruits and the roots no longer need to be the same. We can combine what we like to eat with all the benefits of hardy tomato genes from the wild. The top of a grafted plant can be anything. Preferably it is something you have grown and loved. The bottom of a grafted plant is turbo-charged, frost resistant, disease fighting and drought tolerant.  Grafted roots are not susceptible to disease so they are huge compared to seed started plants. And bigger roots mean bigger top-growth and – yes- more tomatoes.

Over 3,000 different types of tomatoes are grown today but many of them came from the same or closely related parents. That is a lot of inbreeding.

Think of past royal families in Europe. Weren't Queen Victoria and her close Austrian relatives Hemophilic? Think of  specialized dog breeds. You have to be careful your labrador has good hips or watch out for high vet bills.  When the gene pool is limited  weakness follows. Now think of heirloom tomatoes. We have to baby them just to get 5 fruits per plant.

With inbreeding, it doesn’t matter if you are a royal or a dog or a tomato.  Disease builds up and weak traits multiply.  With tomatoes the roots are susceptible to disease and are smaller; fewer fruits are formed and plants are feeble. Its no surprise. We have been breeding from the same few original plants for 200 years.

I had 5-7 fruits per plant on my heirloom Brandywine tomatoes this year. That’s normal, said John Bagnasco , of Garden Life, a large California-based online store, who spoke at the Garden Writing Association Annual General meeting in Tuscon last week . Graft old varieties on to a new genetic stock and suddenly you get 50 instead of 5 tomatoes.

Grafting is done by people or by robots. The idea is to grow, cut and match-up two different tomato plants preferably when they are very small. Ideally growers combine an old favourite with a newly discovered hardier plant. Favourite fruits on hardy roots.

Over a billion plants are grafted annually. Most large commercial farms work only with grafted tomatoes because they produce so much more fruit. They are so common. I am guessing everyone who has eaten a commercial tomato has eaten a grafted tomato. But we don’t want to grow those bland commercial tomatoes in our home gardens – so why am I yacking about grafted tomatoes? Because growers are now producing many of our favorite home varieties on sturdy roots and they are producing more fruit than ever because they are grafted.

Grafted plants are not glued or tied the way woody plants like apples and pears are. Instead, a small plastic tab holds the two pieces of plant together and they are kept in the dark and in 100% humidity for three days. After a week the grafted plants are back on the greenhouse shelf among friends.

Have you felt like a failure when you have tried to grow tomatoes? Here’s a tip:

Don’t buy seed started tomatoes from me or anyone else at the farmer’s market. Instead, seek out and buy your favourite tomatoes grafted onto a hardier, disease resistant root. Or better yet, see for yourself by trying one grafted heirloom like Brandywine next to a seed started plant of the same kind.  

A new variety of tomato found in the wilds of Mexico is being tested for its frost and drought hardiness right now. Yes- you’ve heard right.

In the future we may not need to water or worry as much about cold weather when we grow tomatoes. This is not because of hybridization or weird GMO breeding. This is because hardier stock, found in the wild, is replacing shop-worn inbred varieties in the soil while we continue to enjoy our favorite types of tomatoes grafted to the hardy roots.  

Don’t be the last to grow these fabulous new tomatoes. I understand Superstore sold out in one day last year, so I am not taking any chances. I am ordering early from a wholesaler. I am also on the list to get the latest greatest roots from John before spring fever hits and I start buying all kinds of crazy seed.

Next spring I will get as much fruit from one plant as I normally get from 10. My only problem is - what am I going to do with all the empty garden space?




Monday, October 8, 2012

More Deer Proof Plants

Rudbeckia in front of Calamagrostis in Qualicum Beach are definitely deer proof.
Perhaps I am a slow learner or maybe I just haven't taken the time to look around  before now. Yesterday I realized anything blooming and thriving in a public space in Qualicum Beach is - by definition- deer proof. This a a town where deer lounge on most front lawns at night and when you see the signs saying to slow down- deer ahead- you actually see deer. Like boomers from across Canada, deer have gathered on Vancouver Island. But even with all the deer, the town grows award winning floral displays and the Community in Blooms awards are posted proudly around town.

Among others, deer-accessible flowers include alyssum, ageratum, begonias and salpiglossis. Perennials include Sedum, rudbeckia, salal, oregon grape, phormium and most ornamental grass such as Calamagrostis and Blue Oat grass.

A few years ago after we put up our deer proof fence around the back garden a baby deer got stuck on the garden side with the mom was on the other side of the fence. We were right there trying to figure out how the baby got inside the fence. After some frantic erratic dashes past us and towards mother deer, the baby suddenly found the spot and  crawled under the eight inch gap at the bottom of the fence and pranced away.

If you live in a town with deer the first step (and better than looking on the internet) is to walk around town to see what is thriving and plant that. Seems too simple - doesn't it?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Guest Post: Seed Collecting

Thanks to Maureen for writing a guest blog for me this week. She was out in her garden yesterday, showing me all the seeds she has been collecting and I asked if she would share her knowledge to my readers! Thanks Maureen.

Hollyhock seeds are shown after cleaning
Harvesting and Collecting Seeds

It’s that all-important time of year to harvest what nature so graciously and abundantly left behind—a plethora of seeds for next year’s garden.
As each hollyhock blossom wilts and dies, in its place grows a delightful flat, green pod.  As the pod browns and begins to open, it’s time to harvest the seeds.  Inside the pod is a disc of 40-50 ripened seeds.  Pull the pod from the stalk and sort the chaff from the seeds.*




Cosmos seeds on left and nasturtiums on right
Cosmos’ spent flowers leave behind long, spindly seeds gathered into a cone.   As the cone dries and opens, pluck the seed bunch from the stalk and separate the seeds.
Nasturtium seeds grow 2 to 3 in a paired or triangular bundle.  When they are plump, green and ready to fall off, pluck them from the vine and allow them to dry and wrinkle up before storing.
Viola seed pods are tiny and easy to miss.  A small, brown cone forms from the spent viola flower.  As the cone opens in a triangular fashion, an abundance of tiny seeds are grouped within.  Pull the cone off and collect the seeds.
Store all seeds in a cool, dark place.
*Place seeds inside a folded piece of heavy paper and gently blow on them.  This often separates the lighter chaff from the heavier seeds.


Maureen Lyttle
Writer/Artist/Gardener



Sunday, September 2, 2012

Gardening Put to Bed at Calgary Herald

For those of you following the changes within my Herald Column this year I wanted to "conclude" with the final cartoon.

Last friday was the final gardening article for 2012 and this is the final cartoon that went with it.

Thanks so much to Feedlot Studios and especially Mariko McCrae for illustrating my columns this summer. The cartoons were a trial to see if they would grab a different audience and or stimulate any new ideas. We are not sure if we will do it again but it was a lot of fun. If you have any ideas for the gardening column at the Calgary Herald don't be afraid to share!

Check out the Calgary Herald archives for all my columns, past and present.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Julia Child or Simple Farm Fare?


When I am helping clients design their gardens they want to know precisely what the finished garden will look like. Most ask for low maintenance, long season of colour and  interesting diversity. But really? The truth?  They don't usually know what they want and they are just groping for words that will describe what they are thinking about.

Dinner smells good. The visitor's are drawn into the kitchen by the blend of smells. They know what to expect because they have been over for dinner before. It probably won't be Julia Child but it could be a good stew or a crock pot special. Bubbling or sizzling, the sounds, smells and sights give it away. A garden plan could and should help people visualize the end result but it is different outdoors. Many people have no experience at all. They don't even know the questions to ask.

Evonne isn't your "regular" gardener. She used to be a manager and she puts these skills to good use outdoors. She is creative and knowledgeable and has time to really work on what she wants. She felt bad that she had to ask for help at all. And frankly, she didn't really need it. She is one of those gardeners who gets it.

She knows she likes formal and she has a perfectly turned out home and garden to match. She sent me the photos used here recently and I just smiled when I saw them. Perfectly executed  in every way. Is this the garden all my clients are thinking of when we chat? No. Definitely not. Is it low maintenance and is it native and drought tolerant? Definitely not. It is a precisely designed garden and it suits the space perfectly.


Evonne has mastered her garden the way Julia Child mastered French cooking. And it is a delight to behold.

Gardening is a tough game in Calgary, and not everyone has the same skills as Evonne. Then again some of us like Beef Bourguignon and others prefer stew. Your garden, like your supper, does not have to suit everyone. It simply has to suit you.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Pretty and Green and Wrapped in Tissue

Okay- what is pretty and green and wrapped in tissue?
Bid for this No Guff Gift basket at Vancouver's Word on the Street 

In case you are wondering, this not-so-secret transparent package is the specially wrapped silent auction version of No Guff Vegetable Gardening  complete with special lanolin hand lotion (courtesy Smithfords in Qualicum Beach and special packaging by the Qualicum Beach florist.) These local business owners supported my gift basket so we hope it raises big bucks supporting the Vancouver Word on the Street event.  There are also No Guff gift cards and No Guff coffee mugs and of course No Guff vegetable seeds collected in my garden. It is a  fun package and if you are in Vancouver I think it will be worth your auction dollars. Word on the Street is such a great event to support books and writers and of course readers across Canada so this is my way of supporting them.

I am super excited about this book event  and feel sad that my own home town (Calgary, Alberta) doesn't take part in this event. But in good news, the very popular Word on the Street events are going on  across Canada  in other  locations. My book partner Steven will be selling both No Guff Vegetable Gardening and his new Grow Figs:Where you think You Can't at Toronto's word on the Street Sept 22, 2012.

I will be featured as a speaker at Alberta's only Word on the Street event in Lethbridge Alberta on September 22.  I will also be signing the now  Canadian best seller No Guff Vegetable Gardening on the street so stop by and have a chat!  A venue problem forced Vancouver's Word event to be moved to the weekend after so through the magic of travel I will also be at Word on the Street on September 30, 2012 in downtown Vancouver. If you like books you will love word on the street. I am really looking forward to attending and participating.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Apple Crisis in Salt Spring




Times Colonist
17 Aug 2012 MY new friend Harry Burton (appleludcious.com) was very excited about the Apple festival he was planning for Sept 30, 2010 on Salt Spring Island. I noticed in the colonist today the event had to be cancelled:

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Garden Success...

One of my self-watered pots in Calgary
In this hot summer my single biggest success was water- automatic water. My husband hooked up an irrigation system to my pots on my condo balcony in Calgary and the pots water themselves every day. Even when I am away. It's a miracle.

Keith used a simple timer (mechanical versus battery operated) and a splitter from the main water line with an individual mini-sprinkler going to each pot.  This has been a huge success. Nicely growing plants and colour without lifting a finger for maintenance.







New Patio in Qualicum Beach

When I am away I am really away- 1,000 km from Calgary we have our "other" home. I come and go a lot. I wonder what things will look like when I get back from giving Garden talks or coaching  gardeners in  their Calgary yards and gardens. This is why Keith also set up an irrigation system for our pots on our newly created patio. Can you believe this used to be a parking pad? We ripped out the pavement, set up the greenhouse, installed patio bricks and then placed our old Calgary furniture and pots. The look on our visitor's faces when the water comes on at night is priceless. Many people jump up when they hear the hiss of water. But Keith has a plan. Only the pots get wet, we reassure our guests. 



Tuesday, August 14, 2012

New Annuals: Losers & Winners

Early in the summer this verbena was beautiful

Yikes- this plant desperately needs deadheading but who has time for that?

Yes I get a lot of free plants. No, I don't like them all. Sometimes a promising plant early in the season like Lanai Twister Pink Verbena can win your heart and praise and then dash your dreams. From late May until late June this plant was a winner- full of blooms and praise from all who saw it (see top photo). In a straw poll, everyone from 8-90 loved this plant. That was then. This is now. In August, after I had been away for weeks I got back to my west coast garden and saw how ugly this duckling had become. In garden speak we say this plant is not self-cleaning. It keeps all its old dead flower buds so unless you are an attentive garden always willing to deadhead, it looks bedraggled mid-summer.

Just the opposite is true of the new Proven Winner's selection 'Superbells Double Ruby'. This new introduction has transformed from button to balloon size in a few months and is very self cleaning. I have been away and when I got back it was bigger and better than ever. The dark cherry double flowers are an amazing filler plant in a pot.  All I can say is "WOW" and tough luck for my American neighbour's who can't get this selection yet. Or maybe ever....

Superbells Double Ruby (at bottom) is only available in Canada! 

Friday, August 10, 2012

Big Fat Squash- Deer Resistant

When I am speaking to an audience, I begin with a call for questions. And the number one question is always about deer.

"Can you tell me about plants that are deer proof" someone asks. "No, I can't" I say. "The deer are just too tricky and too opportunistic and change their appetites with season and whim. I gave up and installed a big fence at my place". Of course this is an exaggeration- my large Vancouver Island front yard is exposed to the ravages of free roaming deer and it is also full of plants. Deer leave most of the evergreens including rhododendrons, laurel, hemlock, heather, holly and ornamental grass relatively in tact and they go directly for the roses. They also my entire sour cherry shrub this spring and half the new Weigela. But a funny thing happened on my dog walk today.

I noticed the Orangetti Hybrid Squash (William Dam Seeds) and the Galeux D'Eysines Pumpkin (West Coast Seeds) had spilled into the side lot. While I was looking the other way and obviously busy with other projects, they had grown through their protective fence and out into deer territory. Just in case you think the deer didn't notice, think again. The Brussels Sprouts growing right beside the squash had been neatly nipped back right to the fence while the squash sprawled forward leading with their blooms and fruits.

Will this situation change as the summer winds into fall? I have decided to wait and see. I won't provide any additional deer defence for the wandering patch and will watch and see if fruits get trampled and leaves clipped. I have enough (17 at last count) fruits maturing safely inside the fence so what happens outside the fence is a bonus really. If you have had success with squash make sure to let me know!

Today in The Calgary Herald

Look for the gardening section in the Calgary Herald.... where my article about "An Embarrassment of Riches- Harvest time in the garden... " is featured today.  Check out the illustration for the article  by Mariko McCrae above.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Pick Prairie Hardy Fruits... or plant them now.

Today's Calgary Herald featured my column Berry Picking Fun. Here is the illustration featured in it by Mariko McCrae (Feedlot Studios).

If you missed the column you can read it in the Herald online: http://www.calgaryherald.com/life/Donna+Balzer+Berry+picking/6996692/story.html


Saturday, July 21, 2012

Hardy Fruits Conference the Best!

Dr Bob Bors chats up Haskaps
Carmine Jewel Cherries almost ripe

I am just flying home from Saskatoon. Not an unusual location and certainly not exotic but - seriously- this was one great conference. I met so many farmers - new and old. I had some laughs - Becky, a small market gardener, told me she was looking for "Prince Farming"; Deanna told me she had already found him and he is both handsome and handy!

The talks about new crops were riveting (in a geeky horticulture kind of way) and the tours were wonderful. I learned about spacing of new crops and we met folks growing an entire tree nursery of 65,000 trees on 2.5 acres in town. There are just so many people to mention and thank but first comes Dr. Bob Bors, head of the fruit breeding program at the University of Saskatchewan. This coming friday I will speak more about the NAFEX conference on CBC radio during my regular phone in on July 27th and have also written a column about garden fruits for the Calgary Herald. Above are a couple of pictures of the state of things in the field of horticulture.   More to come.
Debbie from Alaska is shown here looking at the new wonder fruit Haskap.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Successful GardenCoaching

"Last summer you kindly visited my home and gave me some suggestions about redoing parts of the yard.  Your ideas were quite compelling as I tried making changes one step at a time." said Elaine by email. My motto with garden consulting  is : I help those who help themselves! I rarely hear back after my two to four hour consultation- people just go about their merry way building their own beautiful gardens one step at a time. In fact when I do hear back it is often because the gardener has moved to a new home and wants to start all over again.


 "What started out as a few modifications developed into a lovely re-landscaping.  The cardboard to kill the grass worked well so that this summer I have entirely new flower beds.  The cosy nook at the north end of the deck became a stone patio.  Ironically we had just finished laying the stones when the neighbour decided to remove the fir trees that were shading the area.  No problem because the trees has long since passed their best before date.  Now there is a patio which gets morning sun. "


 Elaine shared the photos shown here. She did all the work herself- I just supplied the ideas and inspiration!



Thursday, June 21, 2012

You Call This a Zucchini?


Check out this little video I made on the street in Haarlem, NL yesterday. Yes- I am home from Floriade and will be posting bigger things soon - but this is a trial run!

P.S. WE have already been eating zucchinis at home. Here is a photo of a plant I am growing from  Renee's Garden seeds called Astia Container Zucchini. I seeded it on April 15th and my husband transplanted it for me into this patio pot mid-May. It was producing edible fruits when I returned from my trip to Floriade in Europe in late June. What fun! Just over two months from seeding to eating!

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Report From Floriade in Holland

I will be reporting in about Floriade on CBC radio- Alberta at Noon - as soon as I get home from Floriade in Holland on June 22, 2012. If you  haven't heard of this premiere horticulture event look it up on line! My personal impressions and loads of photos will be put on this site as soon as I can after I return.

Meanwhile don't worry if you don't see any blog updates..... I will be back! Here is a sneak peak of the landscape views there:



Friday, June 1, 2012

What would Donna Do?

Yes my garden cartoon in the Calgary Herald is another fun addition to the body of work by Mariko McCrae and I - check it out in today's Herald. Here is a bit of a teaser -
If you are building pots make sure to add a thriller, spiller and filler!