U is for Up

Up is something that is almost always good, don’t you think? We keep our hopes up, investors are happy when their stocks go up, and toddlers dream of growing up so they can reach a world designed for adults. In my garden, the scarlet runner vines are halfway up their poles and headed higher. In my world, that is excellent.


Indeed, all my crops are now up, some more than others. This year, the squash plants are growing boisterously. Good news, right? Mm, yes and no.

In the realm of computers, nothing can be better than a good backup, especially when the predictable happens and the original file or its drive gets corrupted. Gardens are tricky to backup, though. If I need three zucchini plants to provide for my summer and winter eating should I plant three? Not a good idea. Often, one or more plants do poorly and either waste away or vie for the title of Runt of the Universe. I might be left with only one plant vainly struggling to produce enough. That’s a big fail.

To be safe, I plant extras – backups. So sensible. This year, in my usual fit of caution, I planted five zucchini, and, wouldn’t you know it, they are all exceeding expectations. I now know I will be up to my eyebrows in zucchini as summer matures.

Another feature of early summer – the weeds are getting uppity. Baby purslanes hug the ground here and there, trying to look insignificant, like innocents peeping out of foxholes. Pigweed seedlings huddle under the squash leaves, biding their time, waiting for the right moment to shoot for the sky. Around the borders, runner grass sends sneaky subterranean roots into the garden area, the better to colonize it. Up to no good, the lot of them.

This early in the growing season, I’m still psyched up and quick to roll up my sleeves and keep the garden free of weeds with regular applications of effort. So far, so good, but thirty plus years of gardening have taught me this enthusiasm won’t last, and by final harvest in the fall, weeds will have firm toeholds all over the garden. It’s not that I give up…exactly…it’s more a question of my time being better spent in harvest and storage. At least, that’s how I explain the situation, and I believe because I would never lie to myself. Honest.

Flowers and flower buds are brightening up the garden as I type. Golden yellow squash blossoms, trumpets of fecundity, flare open every morning. Tight, royal purple buds dot the first-planted swath of bush beans, and a scant few red buds mark the lower reaches of the scarlet runner vines. Hurry up, they say, it’s time to reproduce.

Yes, the garden is looking up, and my spirits are so far up they are height-giddy. That’s the joy of gardening – the present day successes (Swiss chard and raspberries) and the anticipation of what will happen next. Tomorrow, I will serve up the first vegetable marrow of the year, picked small so it will be tender and succulent. Not long after, the first broccoli will go directly from plant to plate, then crop after crop will come into production. The corn and the pumpkins will wrap up the season.

It’s all up, up, up, and not even the uppity pigweeds and purslanes can harsh my high.



Youngsters can watch a kite go up as they learn about the letter u in this video:


T is for Time

Now is the time for gardeners to hop from foot to foot in anticipation, to check and re-check the spring plantings. Will all the bean seeds break ground? Can the potatoes make their way to the surface? What if an outbreak of slugs devastate the baby chard?


Of course, I’m talking about other gardeners being tense, not me. I’m totally calm. I’d say I’m as cool as the proverbial cucumber, but that’s a vegetable I detest so I won’t compare myself to one. Let’s say I’m as cool as an alpine night. That’s chill!

No, you won’t find me hovering over the zucchini seedlings or measuring the progress of the onion sets. Neither will you see me drumming my fingers on the calendar. I’m not impatient for the first harvests. Not I.

I’m sympathetic to ordinary gardeners, though. I understand that they are on tenterhooks in keen anticipation of early yields and in wary dread of pests and blights. If I weren’t so alpine chill, I’d be on tenterhooks, too.

Even as I use this arcane expression, I wonder – what are tenterhooks and why, oh why, would anybody be on them? Once again, I am grateful for the Internet and how promptly it supplies enlightenment. I seek an answer and I find an answer.

Apparently, back in the seventeenth century, there were woolen mills aplenty and these mills were surrounded by fields of wooden frames called tenters. Each tenter had hooked nails all around its perimeter. After wool was woven into cloth, it was washed. To keep it from losing its shape, the cloth was stretched on the tenter and hooked onto the nails. Wool has a natural tendency to shrink, so as it dried, the cloth was under tension, held in place by the hooks.

Therefore, on tenterhooks means under tension. This meaning has expanded to include the concept of tense anticipation.

On the tenters and on tenterhooks first appeared in print in the seventeenth century. Authors used these expressions in the same way we use the idiom today. I wonder if it was used by the common folk first, then used by authors, or did the authors use the expression and the common folk liked the imagery and picked up on it. Either way, it has persisted long after those old mills.

These musings lead me to wonder about idioms. We have – which came first, the chicken or the egg – and I further ask – which came first, the author or the idiom?

But I digress. Neither tenterhooks and woolens nor authors and idioms have anything to do with gardening. Still, this detour allowed my mind to think of something other than my garden. I need that because the time to first yield seems to stretch out to infinity.

However, I’m not in a state of tension and suspense. I’m not on tenterhooks. I want to make that perfectly clear.


Time, tenterhooks, teal, train, turtle – the list of t words goes on. Did you know that t is the second most common letter in the English language? Here’s a video about t for those learning their letters:

S is for Spring Fever


My spring fever is raging this year.  No, no, not that kind of spring fever. I’m talking about the sudden frantic rush to get the garden tilled and harrowed, indoor seedlings sprouted and potted, compost distributed, rhubarb picked and processed, and each crop planted out in good time.

Last year, the early spring weather was kind to me. It allowed windows of fine weather between spurts of rain so I could prepare the ground at a leisurely pace. All three sections of my garden were tilled, prepped, and primped by May 1.

This year, the climate showed its mean streak and the weather sabotaged me week after week. On any day that it wasn’t pouring rain, the ground was too sodden from the previous days of rain to be tilled. When the rains finally let up, the rush began. Even so, here it is, May 10, and I’m only two thirds of the way through my ground preparations.

Sigh. I lie. I’m not really at the two thirds mark, but I’m telling myself that little white fib to keep my spirits up. It’s not a big falsehood because I’m definitely more than half way to the finish line. I’m pretty sure I’m past the half way mark. Probably. Sigh.

Spring is in full acceleration. Weeds that sprouted only yesterday (or so it seems) have leafed out, bloomed, and erupted into seed. Yes, I’m talking about YOU, dandelions and bittercress. Of course, this outburst of weeds demands its own share of attention. So does the lawn, which is lush with spring rains and warmer temperatures and grows rampantly.

Still, despite my fever to get the ground ready and keep the lawn from growing so tall it chokes the mower into silence, I know everything will work out. I’m sure everything will work out. Pretty sure.

I must concentrate on the successes. The rhubarb is waist high and vigorous this spring, a pleasure to behold. Already, I’ve picked, processed, and canned three kettle runs.  That’s three times seven for 21 litres of this glorious vegetable. It is an excellent year for the rhubarb.

On the living room window sill, squash seedlings are bursting forth in their little pots of soil – zucchini, vegetable marrow, spaghetti squash, and pumpkin. Unlike the chard, already claiming its space in the great outdoors, the squash expect to be pampered indoors, then slowly hardened off before they will brave the open garden. For now, they are loving their hot window ledge.

Spring, spring, spring. It is a time of anticipation, a time of new life and new growth. What gardener doesn’t feel thrills at the sudden explosion of green vegetation dotted with red, yellow, blue, or white flowers, magnificent banquets for bees. The songs of sparrows, warblers, and wrens express what we feel.

To quote and enhance the words of that most famous poet, Anonymous, “Spring is sprung, the grass is riz, the birdies know what joy this iz.”


Young readers can hear a sparrow sing as they learn about the letter S in my video for kids:

R is for Resilience

If I were to make a list of desirable qualities, resilience would rank in the top five. Let’s face it, life is not easy. It’s not easy for anyone or anything, so we all need the ability to come back after being smacked down.

Resilience can be found in the most unexpected places. Two weeks ago, temperatures plummeted well below freezing in our area, and a bed of pansies in my neighbourhood suffered by it. Their leaves turned black and limp and their cheery flowers wilted and seemed to melt on their stems.

“Poor plants,” I thought. “They’re done for. How cruel to plant them out too early.”

Then the temperature climbed back above zero Celsius, and a few warm days came to pass. The next time I walked by the bed of pansies, I was shocked to see their leaves had revived, regained their green colour, and looked…well…perky. The wilted flowers were goners but new flower buds were poised to open. I was impressed.

So, if pansies can come back after being devastated by an arctic blast, how did calling someone a pansy equate to calling that person a sissy? These winter-resistant pansies are not sissies.

Naturally, I turned to our 21st century fount of information, the Internet to see if anyone had an answer to this question. The explanation that made the most sense to me claims that the pansy’s name comes from its down-turned, face-like bloom that looks like someone deep in thought. The original word is said to come from the French pensée (thought).

When pansies were first introduced to the gardening world three centuries ago, men – true men – were allowed to think, but only when necessary. They were expected to be mostly about action. After all, there were duels to fight, wild beasts to repel, and roofs to raise by brute force.

Jump forward to our century and duels are illegal, people are more likely to be protecting and nurturing wild beasts rather than repelling them, and hydraulic jacks supply the power for roof raising. Year after year of education is thrust upon us – grade school, high school, college, university – and they all demand that we think. These aren’t the “good old days” any more.

The time has come for us to take a whole new attitude to this flower’s name. If you are ever called a pansy, the appropriate response should be, “Well, thank-you!” After all, the person who called you a pansy has doubly complimented you – first, as a deep thinker, second as someone who is, as my neighbourhood pansy patch demonstrated, extremely resilient.

This change of perspective is long overdue, and it’s enough to make even a botanical pansy raise its head with pride, don’t you think?



It’s time to think about the letter R. Here’s a video for young ones learning their alphabet.

Q is for Quit That!

“Quit that!” I say to winter, but it doesn’t hear me. Then again, maybe it does hear me and that breath of wind is actually its gloating laugh. If I thought all the rain we endured in December and January was bad, I had no idea how quickly things could get worse.

Now I know, and wish I didn’t.

We’ve had freezing temperatures for a week. Today the forecasters are bleating out warnings, and snow has been falling for the last three hours. Word is, the snow may continue through tonight.

True, the combination of cold weather and snow at the end of February is not the End of the World, but it is extremely rare here. We like it being rare here. Before this cold snap hit us, I had been frowning at the accelerated growth of my lawn and worrying that I might set a new record for earliest First Mowing of the grass.

Now, instead of tuning up the mower, I will be fetching snow shovels and ice melter out of my garden shed. And I should do that now before it gets too deep…


OK, I’m back after scraping five centimetres (two inches) of snow off the drive and sidewalk. Even though we don’t get much snow in this area, I have enough experience to know it’s better to scrape a meagre five cm several times over the duration of a snowfall rather than shovel an accumulated fifteen centimetres at once.

On the plus side, this snow is cold, dry, fluffy, and light…so far… It took me less than twenty minutes to clear everything.

Winter. Sigh. Truth is, I’d been enjoying the early flowers in bloom – snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils, and a few pink rhododendrons. The bright red noses of rhubarb shoots in my garden gave rise to a torrent of spring thoughts.

“Hmm,” I thought. “When should I start the vegetable seedlings on my window sill?”

Answer – not yet. Really, NOT yet!

According to my gardening logbook, the earliest first mowing of my lawn happened in 2015 and took place on March 3. When I look at the long range forecast for what little is left of February 2018, I see more snow and more cold weather followed by a return to incessant rain. What I don’t see are conditions that would put the First Mowing record of 2015 in jeopardy.

I should be happy that I won’t have to mow the lawn any time soon. Instead, I find myself glaring at the teeming, swirling snowflakes and the lowering, grey sky. And all I can think is…

Quit that!

Don’t quit yet. Recommend this video about letter Q to kids learning their alphabet.


P is for Persistent

This afternoon, I stand at the kitchen window and gaze mournfully at the backyard. The day is gloomy and wet. Gusts of wind riffle the surface of a puddle that has formed on the east section of the garden. I sigh and think of the letter P, and the word that leaps first to my mind is persistent.

Our winter of 2017/2018 is all about persistent precipitation. Rain, rain, and more rain. It’s not unusual for us to get plenty of rain, but this year seems determined to break every record for rainfall dating back to the first scratchings on a cave wall.

We try to be cheerful about the endless downpours. We say things like, “That’s what makes the landscape so green!” and we force a laugh. As follow-up, we will say, “Can’t let a little rain stop ya.”

So, we fill our closets with raincoats, umbrellas, waterproof ponchos, and rubber boots. When we can’t stand huddling inside any longer, we gear up and go out for a sloshy, squishy, drippy walk. On our return, we hang our rainwear over the bathtub, the better to contain the water still streaming off it all.

Despite the rain, life persists in the garden. Though I cleared the ground after harvest in the fall, chickweed has re-emerged and now grows doggedly in the centre section. Some say that chickweed is edible, and, if you like the flavour of grass, you probably will agree. Yes, it’s just that tasty.



Weeds aside, I am grateful for the perennials in my yard. They are already bringing touches of colour and life to the scene. The leaf buds on the raspberry canes are showing delicate hints of green, the rhubarb has pushed the red tips of this year’s shoots through the mucky surface of the soil, and cheery yellow catkins dangle from the hazelnut trees.

As surely as the rain, the perennials, and the weeds will persist, so will this gardener. It’s time to compose a list of seeds I will need for spring and make notes in my calendar for when I will start each variety of seedling on my south-facing windowsill.

Again, I sigh. It’s still January and many cold, wet weeks stretch out between now and spring. Winter persists.


My rain gauge – inches left, millimeters right

Kids can watch a pigeon, a penguin, and a parrot as they learn the letter p in this video.

O is for Oof !

Yesterday, the weather was dry here. It wasn’t a sunny day – no, of course not – but at least it wasn’t pouring cold rain all over everything, which is the norm for our winters.

Naturally, I donned my work clothes and sprang forth to work in the yard. Hah, hah, “sprang” – as if. If only my body was that elastic these days. I might go so far as to say I strode forth. Yes, I can still manage that. And in case you’re wondering about the title, I’m not enough advanced in years to call this essay “O is for Old.”

Speaking of old, my chosen task in the garden was to clear the old canes out of the raspberry patch that lines the eastern fence. It’s a simple job and relatively easy. I took my time and enjoyed the fresh air and the occasional chirping of birds.

For the non-gardeners among us, raspberries produce fruit on long stems, known as canes, which grow straight up from the ground. Only canes that have entered their second year of growth will yield berries, and after these canes have yielded fruit, they die. Even as these canes were giving me raspberries, a new set of canes was growing up, leafing out, and getting strong for the next year’s production. In preparation for the coming spring, I must cut out and clear away the old, dead canes, thus giving room and breathing space to the new canes.


The job itself means I snip off and extract the old canes in sections. First, I’ll cut off the upper third of the dead cane and pull it out of the tangle of new and old canes. Then I’ll reach lower down, cut off the middle third, and finally I will drop into a deep squat and cut the defunct cane off at ground level. By cutting the cane into sections, I’m less likely to damage the young canes when I pull out the old ones.

Well, the top two cuts were no problem, but after an hour of repeated deeps squats, my left hip joint piped up with an objection and the right hip was thinking about chiming in. There was grunting and oofing involved. My leg muscles, keen to continue, called the joints wimps, and my arms offered to help by grabbing the metal trellis and giving the hip joints a hand – literally. Fortunately, I was only a few snips from completing the task, so I didn’t have to deny the warning “oof.”

This morning, I mused about work and age and denial. I’m not old enough to draw my Canadian Pension yet and I’m already noticing plenty of age-related impairments. Somehow, I’d imagined my healthy lifestyle would have me join the rarefied ranks of centenarians who still drive cars and play rounds of golf, but that’s not the way things are shaping up.

Not too long ago, the Canadian government talked about raising the retirement age from 65 to 67 or even more. Its economic advisory council says the age of eligibility “should be recalibrated and increased to meet the Canadian reality of an aging society and a considerably longer life expectancy.” Of course, their focus is on the dollars and cents of the retirement situation, not the health and ability side of things.

Hey, if you are lucky enough to be supple and sprightly at 65, keep on working if you wish. But longer life does not mean the body doesn’t wear down at the same rate as before. I look around at the many (more than you’d think) physically demanding jobs out there, and I think about what the bodies of these workers are saying to them even before they reach 65. Then I think of the government bean counters telling the workers, “Tough, but you need to toil even longer and put up with more and more pain.”

In sympathy, I say to these workers, “Oof!”

To the council and any politician who agrees with them, I say, “Seriously?” And furthermore – RASPBERRY!




Here’s my Letter O video for kids. It includes scenes with otter and osprey.