Wednesday, 3 May 2017

A shrub story (with tangents)

Our garden is an ever changing thing.

Not that it is an "it", of course, it's very much a "them".

Our garden is an ever changing cast of characters - that's better - and this year we're bringing in some new ones. A surprise influx of cash (aw shucks Dad!) means I'm now plotting to bring in certain plants en masse, in numbers I've always wanted to grow them but were previously out of reach, budget wise.

Frustratingly, now I'm having great difficulty finding many of the plants I want, leading me to wonder if there is a conspiracy afoot to keep herbs that are commercially important to the supplement industry (valerian, for example) out of the hands of home gardeners. Whether some nefarious plot is afoot or it just isn't profitable to the greenhouses to sell these 'specialty' plants, it all comes down to the same thing. Certain once-ordinary, 'garden variety' (pun intended) plants are no longer ordinary at all.

I was pretty depressed about that for a while there, but now I'm actually excited. It means growing them in my garden is all the more important. I've ordered some online, of course. But my stubborn hope is that in scouring the countryside for the smaller, out of the way nurseries I'll find what I need, and can support them rather than the Big Growers, if possible. The hunt is on!

Meanwhile, I've found love where I least expected I ever would.

There's a big chain store up here called Canadian Tire. They have 'garden centres' and although I rarely buy anything at such places I can't help but wander into them anyway, you know how it is, right? I spotted these shrubs, oh man are they beautiful .. burgundy leaves, tiny creamy bell-like flowers and they spoke to me. No, wait, they demanded to come home with me. Well shit, I thought, what do I want with ornamental shrubbery? I knew I was sunk anyway, even though ornamentals go against everything I try to do in the garden and the price was just outrageous .. then I looked at the tag and discovered they're barberries! Ha! Okay then! I bought a pair.

It's been too cold and rainy to put them in the ground, so for now they've just been sitting in their pots in the bed they'll be living in. One evening Paul (deeply beloved husband, fellow gardener and all around good guy) suggested that it was too cold and too rainy to leave them there, and advised me to bring them up to shelter on the porch for the night. Umbrella in one hand, heavy pot in the other (they're not large but they're not small, either) I hauled them up one at a time. The first one went well enough. It told me, in a sing song voice, that this wasn't necessary but it didn't mind; they have very sweet personalities barberry plants. The second one, however, grumbled at me before I even picked it up. I actually hesitated. But explaining to Paul that 'it didn't want to come' seemed like a conversation I didn't want to have, so telling myself I was imagining the grumble I picked it up and ..


Barberries have barbs! One needle like thorn pierced into my finger, but since the rain was coming down in cold torrents I just kept going, walking the 30 paces or so back to the house with finger impaled. Laughing, of course.

It gave me a blister. Not a nasty one, just a 'let this be a lesson to you about barberries' love-tap sort of blister.

Which brings us to an aside into the realm of amusing coincidence.

When I'm writing a blog post I tend to drift away from it and do something else while the next paragraph composes itself in the back of my mind. In one of those moments of drift (right after telling you about the blister) I headed over to my favourite astrology site, Freewill Astrology. Here's my astrological forecast for the coming week:

You may have heard the exhortation "Follow your bliss!", which was popularized by mythologist Joseph Campbell. After studying the archetypal stories of many cultures throughout history, he concluded that it was the most important principle driving the success of most heroes. Here's another way to say it: Identify the job or activity that deeply excites you, and find a way to make it the center of your life. In his later years, Campbell worried that too many people had misinterpreted "Follow your bliss" to mean "Do what comes easily." That's all wrong, he said. Anything worth doing takes work and struggle. "Maybe I should have said, 'Follow your blisters,'" he laughed. I bring this up, Sagittarius, because you are now in an intense "Follow your blisters" phase of following your bliss.

Now you can see why that's my favourite astrology site, yes? It's not the first time his forecasts have been so spookily on the mark.

But let us return to our regularly scheduled blog post. The bed the barberries are going into is, or rather was, the nettle bed. I had already decided to make a change there; last fall we gained access to (our firewood guy) Mr. Haldeman's land, wherein lies the biggest patch of the most brutal and tasty nettles I've ever come across, making mine pale by comparison.

As it happens, this spring my nettle bed is producing zero nettles anyway. The lawn around the bed is springing up nettles of course, because nettles are wanderers. The bed in question has been filling up with grass instead (ugh), so I whippersnipped it down to the bare soil and have been staring at it wondering what to do with it for a solid week.

Those burgundy-leaved barberries have given me all sorts of ideas .. like putting a pink honeysuckle in behind them .. which led to a few delicious hours on the internet absorbing all things lonicera. One thing I'm learning is which species to avoid; did you know that some people find the fragrance of honeysuckle "too much"? And that in order to accomodate these ass-hats over-sensitive types 'they' have now begun to breed the fragrance out of honeysuckles? It's true. Abominable but true. Just like with roses, you can now end up with a scentless honeysuckle if you're not careful.

Methinks we have another candidate for "first with their backs against the wall when the revolution comes" (along with those who consider violets a weed). I mean if you don't like the fragrance then just don't grow the plant, right??


The barberries I'm bringing in are considered "invasive". I like that in a plant. Yes, you read that right, I am deliberately growing an 'invasive species'. Not just that, but one associated with ticks and therefore Lyme disease!

Now calm down and let me explain.

First of all, invasive species only take hold in disturbed environments, and the area I'm in is plenty disturbed. The forest behind us is already full of honeysuckle (another invasive but they're yellow-flowered and that's why I have to buy a pink one) and mulberries and quite likely barberries too (but not the red ones). These plants fill niches, empty spaces created when the natives die off. They protect the soils from erosion, their berries feed birds and their barbs and thorns stop deer (also an invasive species, they're not native here but introduced) from going deeper into the forest and further depleting native plants. As to the tick/Lyme issue, this is interesting. Those plants that 'harbour' ticks, like barberry and Japanese knotweed are also - you guessed it - medicines with which to treat Lyme and its co-infections. Even I'm not crazy enough to let Japanese knotweed loose in my garden, but I am happy as Larry to have more options to treat Lyme & its co-infections should the need arise.

Now that the stinging nettle bed is being transformed into a stabbing barberry bed (with honeysuckle, hopefully) the bed next to it will change to match. I've ordered scads of monarda and more scads of particularly potent echinacea, pink and purple respectively. There will be colour galore! The third of my big beds is already coming up mallows, which will be various shades of pink or purple or striped .. I haven't formulated anything beyond that very clearly yet, it depends on what I find. And it's early days, proper planting won't happen for a few weeks yet .. if this rain ever stops ..


  1. Wow! So much fun, so much time ...... Sounds wonderful!