Friday, April 21, 2017

The Creative Side of Gardening

So often the creative side of gardening is overshadowed by the more practical aspects of planting and nurturing flowers, fruits and vegetables.It's important to remember that gardening is not just work, it can be fun and inventive as well.

Gardeners can be a resourceful lot. They look around them to the materials at hand and see a creative potential. This post celebrates different ways to add whimsical or rustic touches to a garden using found objects and materials. Some of these ideas make use of natural items such as twigs, branches and tree stumps in a host of clever and unique ways. In other examples, everyday objects and industrial materials, like metal, have been re-imagined and given a second life.

Natural Ways to add Rustic Touches to a Garden

Even in death and decay, nature has an eerie beauty. Trees, with their twisted and gnarled roots, retain some of their majesty and grandeur even in death. Not surprisingly then, there is an old tradition of using tree stumps in a garden.

The first known "stumpery" was created in the 1850's by Edward William Cooke, an artistic gardener working on a large estate garden. In a flash of inspiration, Cooke saw a fresh use for tree stumps that had been unearthed when a section of the Batemen estate was cleared. Cooke piled the roots of these trees into a wall of stumps and then interplanted them with ferns. Very quickly the Batemen estate became known for its "stumpery." The delicate beauty of the green ferns emerging from the decaying wood was not only strikingly beautiful, it was a reminder, on a more spiritual level, that life can spring from death.

A modern stumpery that includes clay pots.

Making a garden stumpery grew to become a fashionable way to creat the perfect habitat for hardy ferns. Decaying wood returns nutrients to the soil providing the perfect rich, loamy environment that these woodland plants love.

At present stumperies are enjoying a resurgence in popularity do, in large part, to the efforts of Prince Charles who created a stumpery at his home at Highgrove House. In this instance, the Prince used sweet chestnut roots to create a shade garden filled with a large collection of hosta, ferns and hellebores.

The dramatic architecture of a tree's roots is more than just an ideal home for plants. Their mysterious and somewhat melancholy aesthetic can suggest a spiritual significance. One of the most dramatic examples I have seen is in the picture above. The stunning view is a reminder of nature's beauty and the ring that surrounds the large silvery-grey tree stump is a reference to the circle of life.

Tree stumps and driftwood can have modern uses as well. The only limitation is a gardener's imagination. Here on the edge of a pond (above) a weathered bit of wood suspends lanterns over the water. In the image below, a birdbath is nestled in the centre of a large, inverted stump that has been aged by the elements.

A large tree trunk can also make a fine pedestal for an object... 

or a pot filled with flowers.

A dead tree trunk can also make a tall apartment building for birds.

Logs and tree branches can find architectural uses as well. These rough wooden structures can sometimes have a large, imposing scale. There is something about this pergola that makes me think of Stonehenge.

The face that presides over this arbor again makes reference to that other worldly quality of rough, unfinished wood. In this example and the next, the faces reference fantastical creatures and the world of myths and legends.

Young saplings can be pliable. They can be bent into a curve or woven to make a fence or gate.

Here spruce saplings have been used to create a fence and arbor for this vegetable garden.

The tradition of making low woven fences for a vegetable or herb garden stretches back to Elizabethan times. In this modern example, branches have been woven to make a frame for an urn that sits in the centre of a formal herb garden.

Willow is particularly pliable and is often used to make rustic furniture, structures and even abstract sculptural figures like the ones you see below.

As well as more decorative uses, twigs can also be configured into an obelisk that provides support for climbing plants.

Even on a very basic level, twigs can make a very natural looking plant support.

In this final example a mix of different branches and a upright log support a couple of different types of clematis.

Found objects and Rustic Industrial Touches

Aren't these metal buckets hung on a length of chain a rather whimsical way to channel rainfall? In the second part of this post, we will focus on ways everyday objects and industrial materials have been repurposed.

The roof of this long rectangular birdhouse is a old rusted piece of metal. A row of maple syrup spigots provide a place for birds to land.

 Below the birdhouse, an old wagon wheel becomes a abstract sculptural object.

Ladders make terrific plant supports of one kind or another.

A window with an nice patina can be used as an abstract architectural sculpture.

An old milk can makes a rustic container for a planting of succulents.

In this instance old bottles are have been scattered through a shade garden.

This row of tomatoes are made more dramatic with a striking backdrop. The fence looks like it's rusted metal, doesn't it? But as you can from the closeup below, it is just a clever paint job on an ordinary wood fence. The oxidized metal stakes behind the tomatoes add to the effect.

It seems fitting to end this post with a few spring container plantings. This first one makes use of an old blue pot.

This is a re-imagined use for a rusty toolbox.

I hope this post will encourage you to get creative with found objects and natural materials. Remember, a garden is the perfect excuse for a grown-up to have fun express their imagination.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Dear Mrs. Red Robin

Dear Mrs. Red Robin,

Spring has finally come to the garden and the warm weather has me thinking about you. I hope you are well and enjoyed your winter away. 

Will you be returning again to make your nest and raise your babies in the arbor, I wonder?

When I first saw that you had made your nest in the arbor last spring, I am ashamed to admit I thought you were foolish. I hope you forgive both my honesty and my terrible arrogance! To me the arbor seemed like such a low and exposed place to build a family home. We humans have one serious frailty– we think we always know best. 

So quickly I saw the wisdom of your choice! The leafy arbor had both a front and back door. It was nothing for you to fly from your lookout in the black walnut to the arbor and slip unseen through the leaves to the sheltered nest inside of the arbor. And if no one was watching, there was always the more direct root from the fence to the nest that you had hidden so skillfully.

Curious creature that I am, I couldn't resist counting the tiny eggs one day when you were out. Five perfect turquoise eggs! 

I pass through the arbor daily on my way into the garden. Despite my coming and going inches your resting spot, you remained steadfast on those precious eggs. How I came to admire your bravery and diligence Mrs. Robin! I think after a while we got rather used to one another, didn't we? I began to look forward to that moment when l'd pass and say hello.

Then we had that terrible cold snap and even the warmth.of your feathered breast could not protect the two eggs at the very bottom of the nest. Oh the heartbreak motherhood can bring! Only three babies survived to tap their way out of their shells. As mothers we do our best, but sometimes there is nothing we can do to protect our children from the harsh realities of life. 

I think I was excited as you were to see the three baby robins. All beaks and eyes they weren't cute in the way that babies so often are, but with regular meals of fresh tasty worms who wouldn't see their potential to become handsome birds? It broke my heart when one morning I found a baby had fallen from the crowded nest and perished in the cold. I buried him among the flowers, and like you, I invested all my hopes in the remaining two. 

Some might scoff at me for thinking I could learn anything from a simple creature like a bird, but learn I did. Flying is no easy task even when you are born with wings. I see that now!

The days got warmer and the babies grew and grew. There were no further mishaps until Mr.Gardener walked through the arbor one afternoon unaware. The startled fledglings fluttered to the ground to the sounds of your alarmed, "Pip, pip, pip." Mr. Robin came in answer to your calls and all the other birds spread the word that there was possible danger in the garden.

I thought that your distress was that your babies had fallen, but now I think I see, my dear Mrs. Red Robin, that your only concern was for the circumstances in which they had fallen. The young fledglings had been testing their wings for days. They were ready to leave the nest and make their own way in the world. The only difference was that their departure was not made at a moment of their choosing.

There is a right of passage that all adolescent robins must face. The first test of a young robin's wings is a safe drop to the ground. That is why your nest is not high in a tree! Now I understand that there is a very delicate balance at work when you build your nest. A home close to the ground might invite danger from predators, but it also assures your offspring will make it through their first flight unharmed.

Who would have guested that the cacophony of bird calls on that bright, sunny afternoon would bring fresh danger instead of preventing old? A brown hawk swooped down from the sky and perched himself on the fence. What a devilishly handsome fellow he was too! Mr. Gardener and I watched with horror as one of the two babies hopped down the garden path in plain sight those dark, beady eyes. There was not a moment to loose. I ran down the path after your wee babe waving my arms up and down as if l had my own pair of wings. The hawk wanted no part of such lunacy. He took to the sky and disappeared as mysteriously as he had arrived.

While I was occupied creating a distraction, the fledgling disappeared into the green cover of the garden. There his black feathers and spotted breast made him all but invisible. I felt sick fearing the worst would befall the last of your children, Mrs Red Robin! You had worked hard to keep them safe, but sometimes misfortune counters a parent's best efforts!

I am so very glad that neither of your children perished that afternoon or in the days that followed. I was relieved and happy when I discovered that there were still two shy adolescents in your good company Mrs. Red Robin! I could not have been more proud of them, if they had been my own.

It broke my heart all over again when they eventually struck it out on their own. 

So now you know, my dear friend, how much I have been thinking of you. The arbor remains empty awaiting your return.

Happy Easter to you Mrs Red Robin. Happy Easter!

Yours truly, 
Mrs. Gardener

P. S. If you happen to see Mrs. Brown Bunny in your travels, please pass on my regards. 

Friday, April 14, 2017

A Garden to Dye For!

From the book Happy Hens & Fresh Eggs: Keeping Chickens in the Kitchen Garden – with 100 Recipes, ©2015, by Signe Langford, Photography by Donna Griffith. Published by Douglas & McIntyre. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

By Signe Langford

Let’s talk about two of my favourite things: gardening and Easter. I love Eastertime; the chocolate, the return of spring, the chocolate, dying eggs…wait, did I already mention the chocolate?

All kidding aside, give me a natural Easter egg any day over some confection dyed some garish chemical shade of electric pink. We all love the pretty colours of Easter eggs, but there is a way to do it naturally, and from the ground up…literally!

Colouring Easter eggs is fun for everyone, especially the kiddos. Here’s how to do it without chemical, and possibly harmful, dyes. Natural, plant-derived colours are softer and subtler – which I happen to prefer to the brash hues of artificial dyes – and what’s better, you can go one step further and grow some of your own dye-producing plants.

Easter Egg Garden: Grow These Plants for Natural Colours

Beets – the darker the red the better. Grow them in loose soil, in full sun to part shade.

Blueberries – these tasty berries lend a soft blue-grey colour to white eggs. The blueberry shrub does best in acidic soil (between pH 4 and 5), in full sun. If yours aren’t doing so well, try digging some coffee grounds into the soil at the base of the plant.

Photos by Signe Langford

Blackberries and Raspberries – both of these members of the rubus family grow quickly and spread like weeds. The berries give off a colour ranging from soft, barely there pink to a deeper purplish tone.

Photo by Signe Langford

Boston Ivy and Wild Grapes – either of these prolific climbers might be growing on a fence near you right now! The tiny berries produce a soft purple colour.

Purple or Red Cabbage – these brassicas can thrive all the way north to zone 1. To achieve a soft red colour, boil up the tough outer leaves.

Saffron Crocus – a fall-blooming, true crocus survives as far as zone 5; it needs a sunny spot, in well-drained soil. It’s great as part of a rock garden. Harvest the stigma, dry and use in cooking or for turning white eggs a light orangey-red.

Spinach – this somewhat dainty green prefers loamy soil, in full sun, and at cooler temperatures. Boil and mush up the leaves and stems for a soft and pretty pastel green.

Yellow Cooking Onion – they thrive in almost all soil types, other than hard-packed clay; they need lots of sun. To produce a pinkish-red colour on white eggs, boil the skins. This is how traditional Greek red Easter eggs (kokkina avga) are made.

Of course planting an Easter Egg Garden is something to do now for next year. This Easter, visit a grocery store for everything you need.

From the book Happy Hens & Fresh Eggs: Keeping Chickens in the Kitchen Garden – with 100 Recipes, ©2015, by Signe Langford, Photography by Donna Griffith. Published by Douglas & McIntyre. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

From the book Happy Hens & Fresh Eggs: Keeping Chickens in the Kitchen Garden – with 100 Recipes, ©2015, by Signe Langford, Photography by Donna Griffith. Published by Douglas & McIntyre. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

You’ll Need:  

white vinegar
vegetable oil
white eggs – free run, of course!

Natural Dyes:

undiluted, well-steeped black tea
undiluted black coffee
undiluted soy sauce
oranges, for the peels
beets, beet juice or leftover brine from pickled beets
blueberries, blackberries, strawberries and raspberries
yellow cooking onion, for the skins
undiluted red wine
red or purple cabbage

From the book Happy Hens & Fresh Eggs: Keeping Chickens in the Kitchen Garden – with 100 Recipes, ©2015, by Signe Langford, Photography by Donna Griffith. Published by Douglas & McIntyre. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

Here’s How:

It’s easy to do, and the effect is prettier and more delicate. For the best and strongest results, start with white eggs.

First, give eggs a wash in cold, running water to remove any natural coating or dirt.

Add 15 mL (1 Tbsp) of white vinegar for every 250 mL (1 cup) of water in a saucepan. The vinegar is acidic and will etch the calcium of the eggshell, making it more porous and therefore more receptive to the colour. The vinegar will also draw the colour out of whatever dye material you’re using.

Add the berry, leaf, spice or whatever colour you’re working with, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cook it until you like the colour of the water. But remember, if the water is say, dark red, the egg will end up a soft red or dark pink.

Now add the eggs and continue to simmer for about 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the eggs cool along with the water; the longer you leave the eggs in, the darker they’ll be, up to 24 hours!

Remove the eggs from the dye bath and set them on a wire cooling rack over a surface you don’t care about: newspaper or old rags. Let them dry completely before handling them.

When the eggs are bone dry, give them a little polish with a soft rag and a dab of vegetable oil. Not only will they be beautiful, they will be edible! I think they look like polished marble; so pretty and elegant on the table.

Bookmark this post with a Pin.

From the book Happy Hens & Fresh Eggs: Keeping Chickens in the Kitchen Garden – with 100 Recipes, ©2015, by Signe Langford, Photography by Donna Griffith. Published by Douglas & McIntyre. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

I called on my friend, Chef Christine Cushing to share her family’s recipe and her know-how for my book, Happy Hens & Fresh Eggs; Keeping Chickens in the Kitchen Garden and I am sharing it again here! Traditionally, the eggs are dyed with onion skins, giving them a very subtle hue indeed. I wanted a little more pizzazz, so I added some beet juice to the water when dying mine.

This post was written by Signe Langford

Signe Langford is a restaurant-chef-turned-writer who tells award-winning stories and creates delicious recipes. She is a frequent contributor to the Globe and Mail, National Post, Toronto Life, Canadian Living and Garden Making magazines. In 2105, Signe published her first book Happy Hens & Fresh Eggs; Keeping Chickens in the Kitchen Garden- with 100 Recipes
Raised in the town of Hudson, Quebec Signe grew up surrounded by an ever changing menagerie of critters, both wild and domestic, and her special affection for all feathered creatures has never flagged. At present, she shares a downtown Toronto Victorian with a tiny flock of laying hens. For more stories and recipes please visit