Saturday, May 25, 2013

Mud Pies in May

Calgary has three seasons, winter, monsoon and drought. Winter ends with not a whimper but a deluge that has the two rivers which flow through the city rambling out of their banks and up into the surrounding neighbourhoods looking for a cracked foundation, or a faulty sump pump. Streets and pathways are awash and basements are flooded.

Of course the 27th of May is the predicted date of the last frost of the season so eager gardeners, including yours truly, grab their gumboots and head for the garden centre. Having lost half the perennials I planted last spring to drought and the lack of a functioning irrigation system in the flower beds I laid a steel glove on the irrigation company and have exacted a promise that several additional sprinkler heads will be going into the flower beds. As soon as it stops raining.

Ian, bless him, the 10 hours I spent in labour with that boy have been repaid 1000 times over. He came over last Monday and took me plant shopping. Last year the pickings were slim and I came home with a pretty, but a somewhat disappointing bunch of plants. This year someone must have read my "want" list because the selection was everything I wanted and more.

The problem here is one of scale. This is a HUGE building. The main walk approaching the front door is 20 feet wide and 120 feet long. The beds were originally planted with potentillas, and some kind of coarse, leggy, ugly shrub which grows from the base each year and so accumulates a huge amount of dead wood and can't be trimmed into a neat shape. These plantings  are now 10 years old and need to be ripped out and replaced. My plan is to replace two or three a year until they are all gone.

It takes bold colours and mass plantings to achieve any impact on this scale. What we did last spring was 50 times better than what had been there before, but the plants were too small to have the needed impact. This year! Be still my heart. The garden centre had BIG plants with wonderful foliage that flower from June 'til frost. Plants that will tolerate shade. (I admit I went a little crazy.)

The landscaper was supposed to come and plant what I bought this past week. He was going to dig out some of the worst shrubs and replace them with plants I'd bought more suited for shade. I just couldn't take on this job. The soil in these flower beds is heavy clay with very little organic matter. In the south we'd call it "gumbo". Go down six inches and it's pure clay, with no organic matter whatsoever. So we needed to amend the soil before planting anything new.

But due to several days of non-stop-drenching-24-hour-around-the-clock rain the landscaper couldn't work, and rain is forecast for every day next week. Here I am with a balcony full of plants getting more pot bound by the minute, and an appt for oral surgery this coming week which will effectively erase my capacity to do anything for several days.

Thankfully the sky cleared about 10:00 and I begged Ian to come help his desperate mother get some plants in the ground. On the way he bought a bale of peat moss, a bag of builders sand and a bag of compost, all to add to the bag of sheep manure which has been languishing on my deck for the last year. He brought a wheelbarrow and long handled shovel and a willing heart. Oh I do love that boy.

First task was digging up five shrubs which were badly sited. They need full sun, and are in a spot where they perhaps get four or five hours a day. As a result they are lanky, soft stemmed and totally covered in black aphids by July. The honeydew they produce is so thick it drips like strings of black snot on the sidewalk. People brush the branches as they go past and it's a mess. I cut the shrubs back severely last spring, but it's like chopping up a starfish - the low light level makes them send out two match-stick size seven foot-long shoots from every spot where you cut the branch. 

Once the shrubs were dug up  we added large amounts of peat, compost, sand and manure to the black "gumbo" soil. It was hard work. Then we planted two roses, a yellow and a red, a Ligularia "Little Rocket", 10 white swan echinaceas, 10 shasta daisies, and half a dozen red Oriental poppies in the front bed. These are all substantial sized plants, with some "presence" to them, and that bed ought to be popping with colour and texture in a few weeks.

In the bed nearest the door, where Ian removed the worst shrubs,  we amended the soil and planted two pink Japanese Astilbes, with a Ligularia "Midnight Lady" between them. A couple of weeks ago I planted a white Astilbe on the other side of the walk, and I'll put the Coral Bells directly across , so the colours echo each other. I have several other plants to go in both beds but at this point the clouds were massing black and threatening, we were beginning to get rained on, and the thunder was rolling.

I still have the Coral Bells, a yellow leaved hosta, two dozen dusty miller, four English thyme, two dozen coleus, a half dozen veronica, three or four cranesbills, and a sedum mat to plant. And all the shrubs need trimming. (This is a job for the landscaper with his power trimmer.)  For now the remaining plants are back on my balcony, and we wait for a sunny day where the landscaper can come and finish the job.

This year the flower beds are going to be smashing. If I live to see it. Lord I am tired. But I live for the three months of the year that I can garden. I'd have to be dead not to be out making mud pies in May. 

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