A winter’s walk at dusk

The  following  images were taken on my Android phone while out for a brisk , refreshing walk. A hospitable interlude from all the hustle and bustle of cleaning, baking, buying, making, wrapping madness. The plethora of Christmas prefatory measures that unfurl the 10 days before Christmas are known to many. I call them shenanigans that need to be chilled down with a breath of fresh air.




The Snow Storm

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whitened air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farm-house at the garden’s end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier’s feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.
Come see the north wind’s masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer 
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.

Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer’s lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer’s sighs; and, at the gate, 
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not, 
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind’s night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.

Power perennials for Zone 3 climes

Opening Acts

The first perennials to brave the elements are stalwart specimens indeed. Winter, is allegedly a finite season not an endurance travail that perpetually tarries. Spring in Winnipeg, Manitoba is fraught with delays and set-backs and false starts. When all seems hopeless, as you’re thinking you’re doomed to eternal quiescence, the remarkable transfiguration transpires. Just as you’re thinking you’ll never wear a pair of flip flops or put your down filled jacket into mothballs the sub rosa affect occurs. My favorite perennials of all are the the opening acts, the unescorted soldiers if you will, which kick off the show, launching much anticipated spring into a feverish blazon.

Pasque Flower or Manitoba Crocus

Often seen emerging or blooming in the snow, the Pasque flower belongs to the Ranunculaceae family, which is Latin for “little frog”. The name was given to the family because a group of plants in this family grow where frogs live. The Pasque flower has several stems that rise 6-8 inches off the ground. On each stem is one flower with 5-8 petals. The range of color in the petals is from dark lavender to almost white. In the center of the flower are yellow stamens. The entire plant is covered in silky hairs.  The fruit of the plant is a plum that is achenial, which means that one seed is attached to the ovary wall, like a strawberry seed. The Pasque flower grows naturally in the tundra. It likes well-drained, sandy, and gravelly soils as well as roadsides. The Pasque flower, like all tundra plants, grows low to the ground in order to benefit from radiant heat in cold climates. Its fine silky hairs help insulate it from the cold.

Leopard’s Bane

Next champion perennial, and most likely to emerge is the valiant Leopard’s Bane Doronicum caucasicum or D. cordatum ~ was once thought to be poisonous to animals – hence the “bane” with regards to it being the scourge to small grazing animal species. The genus is from an old Arabic name for the flowers. Their long, straight stems make excellent cut flowers as they last for a number of days when placed in water. Because of their rich golden color, they are splendid for the border, for they begin blooming when most yellow flowers are still scarce. I plant them amongst tulips and muscarri, or near small flowering shrubs like dwarf Korean Lilac or dwarf plum, and in masses for high impact in late April and early May. Plant in rich loamy soil, they are equally good in shady or partial sun. Plants should be divided soon after they finish flowering. They also reseed themselves if the flowers are left to go to seed.

Longing for these delightlful sounds….

The Song Sparrow

Fair little scout, that when the iron year
Changes, and the first fleecy clouds deploy,
Come with such a sudden burst of joy,
Lifting on winter’s doomed and broken rear
That song of silvery triumph blithe and clear;
Not yet quite conscious of the happy glow,
We hungered for some surer touch, and lo!
One morning we awake, and thou art here.
And thousands of frail-stemmed hepaticas,
With their crisp leaves and pure and perfect hues,
Light sleepers, ready for the golden news,
Spring at thy note beside the forest ways–
Next to thy song, the first to deck the hour–
The classic lyrist and the classic flower.

Archibald Lampman

Skaters swirl atop a frozen shield of ice

All is quiet save for the scrapping blades of skates cutting contours on the recently Zamboni-ed surface. I strain to hear the swell and surge of the formidable estuary through the dense layers I stand poised upon. I know the cresting of the currents have not ceased under the crust of this ice. Another world, seemingly dormant, purdue in this sub-aqueous domain. This door is closed by natures harsh grasp. I float on the glaze of this dichotomy. I shine with the sun, I smile knowing the dark waters are temporarily thwarted, muted by the sheaths of dense crystals, snow and ice.

The smiles on the skaters faces, as they glide past me are pleasant and nostalgic. I love how my glides improve as my muscles warm. A sunny morning enhances the hoar-frost on the trees. The temperatures are perfect for skating on the river trail and the light is dazzling.

by Noa Biran and Roy Talmon

Piquant Project: the art of flavoured Oil

Flavoured Oils

 Making flavored involves integrating robust flavorful ingredients into “healthy” oils (these “healthy” oils contain low or no saturated fats). Oils commonly used for flavoring are extra-virgin olive oil, safflower oil, canola oil, macadamia oil, and soybean oil (commonly referred to as vegetable oil).

Most meals are now commonly prepared by utilizing alternative homemade or store bought sauces, salsas and condiments. One of the most effective sauce alternatives is the addition of infused oils. The smooth richness of infused oil adds depth and rounds flavors. Many of our favorite ingredients are fat soluble, therefore oils are ideal flavor carriers. Fat is the best vehicle for these flavor notes to adhere to. As well oils give dramatic impact when plating foods. Infused oils add excitement to salads, marinades and sauces. They also make exquisite gifts providing storing directions are included.

The Traditional Method

The traditional method for infusing oils is to place ingredients such as herbs, spices, citrus, nuts, or dried fruits or vegetables into a sterilized clear bottle and add oil. Ingredients can be muddled or mashed first. The bottle is sealed or corked and left to infuse on a sunny windowsill to accelerate the infusion process.

Sanitation Concerns

Pure oils are stored at room temperature without concern for spoilage or food born pathogens, this is because, in their unaltered state oils don’t have enough moisture content to support the growth of microorganisms. However when other ingredients are added to the oil, both moisture and microorganisms the ingredients may contain are enough to make infused oils dangerous. This danger is compounded when oils are kept at room temperature. Once infused, oils are best kept refrigerated, for this reason, the traditional method of infusion is not recommended for commercial food service.

To prolong the shelf life of infused oils, the containers and utensils used in preparation should be thoroughly clean. The same precautions should be taken in making infused oil as those utilized in canning or preserving food. Sterilizing with boiling water is advised.

As well oils should be kept sealed until mature or ready for use. The process of oil or fat going rancid is an oxidation process. Sealed containers keep oxygen contact to a minimum. A putrid “off’ odor indicates the development of rancidity. Eating rancid food won’t make you sick but it is unhealthy in the long run. All fats contain chemicals called peroxides and aldehydes that can damage cells and may even encourage cholesterol. It is important to note that rancidity and the presence of botulism toxins are not necessarily related. Toxins may indeed be present without any off-odor. Likewise and off-odor does not indicate the presence of botulism toxin. It may indicate that the oil has been left for long periods of time at room temperature. Discard the oil if you are uncertain of its storage.

Garlic, vegetables and herbs with high moisture content may support the growth of C. Botulinum bacteria. For safety reasons, these infused oils should be refrigerated and used with-in 10 days, therefore making small amounts of oil is recommended to avoid spoilage and consequently waste of product.

Cold Infusion and a quick “Blender/Food Processor Method”

This technique is recommended for delicate herbs, citrus zest, and fresh chili peppers. These ingredients may add moisture to the oil and cause the oil to spoil more rapidly. All that is involved in this preparation is a mixing of oil with the flavoring and then storing it to allow flavors to synthesize. Sometimes these oils can be consumed after a few hours or days particularly when garlic or hot peppers like jalapeños and habaneras are incorporated.

If using a blender or food processor to assimilate flavors, the velocity of the blender accelerates the release essential oils.  Combine the oil and the “flavoring” ingredients in the blender and blend on high speed until the product is liquefied. Leafy herbs can be quickly blanched in boiling water and then shocked in cold water to help preserve their colour, which in turn gives the finishing oil a pleasing colour and appearance. Dry the blanched herbs thoroughly with paper towels before adding to the blender. Alternatively you may use a dehydrator to extract the moisture from your herbs. Roots such as ginger should be grated or chopped before blending in order to fully extract their flavors. Fibers from roots should be strained before bottling. Straining other ingredients is optional.

Hot Infusion Method

This method is generally used with ground spices or tougher –leafed herbs such as rosemary and sage. Heating oil makes the finished product more sanitary and less prone to spoilage.

Some spices like cumin, curry, and dried chili peppers are intensified by being heated in the oil and will develop a complex flavor as the oil matures.

To create a hot infusion, combine the oil and the flavor ingredients in a saucepan and heat over a moderate flame, monitor the temperature with a thermometer. In most cases the oil should be between 180 and 200° F to adequately release the essential oils of the flavoring ingredients. The oil should simmer – never boil. This process may take longer if wetter ingredients are used. Higher temperature will give the oil a “cooked” or fried taste and may caramelize or scorch the flavorings. Determine if straining is required then pour into sterilized bottles. Refrigerate oil after it has reached room temperature.

Oven Method

Place oil and chopped vegetable or herb in a 2 cup (500 ml.) glass-measuring cup. Set glass measuring cup on a pie plate and place in a 300° F oven for one hour. At the end of heating the vegetable pieces should become a medium brown colour and become somewhat crisp. If not continue baking until they turn brown. Remove cup to a rack to cool for 30 minutes. Line a small strainer with a coffee filter or several layers of cheesecloth. Strain oil into a sterilized glass jar, cover and store in refrigerator at all times, Use within one month. Makes 1 cup (250 ml.)

Sure fired tips for achieving success

  • Use good quality oils.
  • Use attractive bottles and tightly fitting lids that are free of cracks or chips.
  • Sterilize your bottles before using by boiling in a water bath for 15 minutes.
  • Work with thoroughly cleaned and dried herbs and fruit and vegetables for maximum safety.
  • Never boil oils keep below boiling point if using the heat infusion method.
  • When pouring oils over desired flavoring in the sterilized bottles, tightly cap to allow flavors to infuse.
  • Store oil in the refrigerator for a couple of days to allow the flavors to intensify. You may choose to strain the oil before using.

How and where to use your flavoured oils

  • Used to flavor cooked ingredients like fish, pasta, or stews
  • Toppings for end products like garden salads or ratatouille
  • Flavor mayonnaises, or hollandaise sauces
  • Used to enhance a marinade or used during barbequing/grilling
  • Used as a condiment to drizzle on pizza, mashed or roasted potatoes, popcorn or grilled    vegetables
  • Citrus oils can be used on fish, shellfish or poultry as a finishing condiment
  • As a dip for crusty bread – an alternative to butter
  • Whisked into yogurt or sour cream to create a dip
  • Used to boost flavor to otherwise bland recipes

* Remember that flavored oil is not a preservative. If making flavoured oil without heating treat the finished product as a fresh product. Use within 1 to 2 days and keep refrigerated.

Few foods intensify flavors they way infused oils do. Merely a few drops of your specialty oil will enhance a wide variety of food. Use the oil sparingly to trim the fat out of your diet. Canola oil is an ideal choice for making flavored oil; the mild texture and mellow taste allow a multitude of flavors to shine through.

Prepared for “Flavored Vinegar and Oil Workshop”
presented at Sage Garden Herbs on October 15, 2011
by Karin Aldinger

Flowers that pack a lot of punch in Autumn


by William Morris

Laden Autumn here I stand

Worn of heart, and weak of hand:

Nought but rest seems good to me

Speak the word that sets me free.

To mulch or not to mulch

Mulch is nature’s freebie so use it!

The idea of mulch is to add a layer of insulation on top of the soil preventing sudden changes on the soil temperature {from either freezing or thawing} fluctuations, which can compromise the root systems of tender perennials. Northern regions with reliable snow coverage have the benefit of snow mulch – natures own insulation however snow coverage can vary and cold snaps without proper snow coverage threaten tender perennials and transplants.

Mulching materials should be organic in matter and should remain loose around the plant so as not to suffocate. If the mulch compacts into a pancake it could create a wet environment for the perennial. A wet environment can cause mold, fungus, and disease and invite pests. I prefer mulched leaves; a mix of different kinds is best but experiment by all means. I’ve heard that maple leaves are particularly prone to compressing into a “pancake” layer. I like my oak leaves mulched through my lawnmower, they mesh together well. For my taller bushier perennials, {as in my rosettes, or roses} i will put a tomato cage around the plant to catch the mulch.  If you don’t have adequate leaves or leaves of your desiring, ask a neighbour to save some for you. Alternatively you can mix leaves with cedar bark or use in combination with pruned evergreen boughs.

The general rule for mulching perennials is to mulch after the ground has frozen. Apply mulch by piling on top of your plants to a dept of 6 to 8 inches. The depth of the mulch will depend somewhat on the soil underneath. Sandy soil will require more insulation that clayey soil. Elevated areas or areas exposed more precariously to the elements may warrant more protection as well.

Come spring the perennials will grow right through the mulch. Remove mulch from the crowns gradually in the spring as the soil thaws. You can remove the mulch completely when the ground has thawed completely.  {If you are not sure check the temperature of the soil, it should be 4 degrees Celsius or warmer.}

To Mulch or nor to Mulch was an article I wrote for the Perennial Workshop at Sage Garden on September 28, 2011

Preparing a perennial garden for winter at 49° North

Attention perennial gardeners, fall is the time to … Get a “Move On”

The great divide or investing in strong stock

If there was ever a time to rest on your laurels as a gardener its August and the beginning of September – unless of course frost warnings have you scrambling hither and yon collecting produce and protecting tender plants. However as September comes to a close the perennial garden needs a critical examination.  This is an opportune time to move or divide perennials. But there are rules to adhere to and certain protocols to follow in order to meet success for the spring. As a general rule of thumb, if a plant blooms between early spring and late June, an early division is ideal. If a plant blooms after late June – then early spring division is best. There are some perennials which require special attention, for example Peonies should only be moved/divided in the fall, Oriental Poppies should be moved/divided in August, Bearded Iris and Lilies should be moved/divided in mid to late fall. However one can always bend the rules and I do all the time. If you don’t push the boundaries you will never reap the rewards.  An autumn stratagem such as this accelerates the burgeoning appeal of your perennial beds so shake the cobwebs out and make September and October your time to get a head start on renovating your perennial beds.

Come August I tend to take a scrutinizing gander over the entire garden. With a critical eye I evaluate the if everything met my expectations.  I also track what I loved most in my garden journal; make wish lists for new acquisitions, as well as take account of what some of my kindred gardener’s successes were. Photos aptly illustrate my true loves. They also show the commonplace or noxious dwellers that beg to be shifted or banished.

I celebrate my successes and learn from my failures (or neglect). I also remember what I merely tolerated. The best part of photography is that it is a nice way to record the evolution of one’s yard as the years pass. Photos (digital photos at this juncture) help me to find where I relegated my new perennials in the autumn. This is a preventive measure as well as an artistic maneuver on my part, as it prevents me from inadvertently tearing or hoeing out, a fall edition in the perennial bed come May or June. This is my why not cutting back my perennials in autumn. I like most of the foliage to stay on the plant so that I know the lay of the land come spring. If there is insufficient foliage I recommend placing a good-sized marker or small stake and if no foliage is present a tag or wooden stick with the name of the plant. Besides that, leaving perennials intact adds visual and auditory interest in the winter, (ie. Ornamental grasses, Astilbe, Echinacea, Joe Pye weed, Virginia creeper), traps snow for better snow coverage (mulch) and provides for protective and secure perches for small birds in the winter.

Some perennials carry over the winter in a low clump of evergreen leaves near the ground, known as a “rosette”. Although you can trim the upright stems back on these “rosettes”, leaving the lower leaves intact. Remove only the brown or obvious dead parts of these plants in the spring. Some examples of “rosette” perennials are: Coreopsis, Digitalis, Gaillardia, Heuchera, Bearded Iris, Shasta Daisies, Penstemon, Poppies, Polemonium, Salvia, Primula, and Tiarella.

I keep an eye on the super-size perennials during the course of the summer so that when fall draws nigh, I have secured them some new real estate. This sometimes requires careful consideration and sometimes overall refurbishing of perennial beds in order to accommodate several specimens. You will find that some years you have many, many changes to make however I assure you, your hard work in September and October will be thoroughly rewarding in the spring. Sometimes a wet fall makes it more difficult to get into the garden. A dry fall is serendipity for a gardener so take advantage of what nature provides. When spring finally sashays into Manitoba, the results of your hard work will be a sensation. The newly refurbished perennial bed unfurls transformed for everyone to enjoy and admire.

There’s an army of reasons to move any given perennial. You may do so because it was in the wrong site. It may have been overshadowed by a shrub or scorched by the sun and is crying out for more shade or diffused light or the reverse may hold true, perhaps the drainage was poor, or it might merely need dividing after its fourth year ~ whatever the reason you must dig the entire plant up. Assess if it requires dividing and check the condition of the plant at large. It can be cut into halves or thirds using two shovels. I find a gardening knife an ideal way to saw through thick roots. If you don’t have room for the remaining part of the plant offer it to a neighbour or a friend, perhaps a trade will occur. Isn’t this what perennial gardening is all about… plenitude and sharing?

Dig the hole 5 to 10 inches deeper than the root ball, depending on the size of the perennial. Amend the soil by adding some compost (or Sea Soil), worm-castings or coco earth (if the soil is compacted with clay) or throw in combination thereof. Place the plant into the hole. Fill with remaining soil. Remove excessive foliage to promote root growth and serious wilting, which is desirable in the fall as plants are going into dormancy. Water in with Sea Magic as it is beneficial for stronger and speedier root development.

You must never, never fertilize in autumn. You may fertilize again in the spring once you see signs of leaf development. (Fertilizing a dormant perennial will encourage it to set out new growth, which will compromise it overwintering to its fullest potential.) Water the transplant regularly until the ground freezes being careful not to drown the roots through over-watering. Sometimes rainfall will not adequately “water in” the new transplant so check regularly until the ground freezes or snow falls, whichever comes first.

If you are choosing a new perennial from a garden centre, choose strong, healthy specimens. The foliage may not be impeccable this time of year but do check for disease or pests.  Look for over-sized perennials as they will give back forcefully and will require less monitoring than a minuscule plant. (Small perennials are best purchased in the spring when you can check its development more carefully). This might be just the time to choose something unusual or even reach into a less hardy Zone especially if you are providing winter protection.

This article was written for a workshop I gave at Sage Garden on September 28, 2011