I get asked about evergreens a lot. Lots of plants are “evergreen” but for the most part, when people ask me about evergreens they are talking about conifers. Spruce, fir, juniper and pine are the most common coniferous plants in our neighbourhoods, but people seem to have trouble telling the differences between them. I can’t tell you how many people call every single coniferous tree a pine, and every cone that falls in the street a pine cone. (There is a difference between spruce cones and pine cones. Get with it.)

People often want cedars but will insist to me that “cedars always die in our climate.” I beg to differ. Any street in any old neighbourhood will have at least a dozen enormous old cedars of several varieties that are healthy and strong. If you pay 22 bucks for a cedar at a big box store, plant it in an unsuitable location, and don’t give it any water (which is normally what people do) then yes…cedars will absolutely die in our climate. Sometimes my job makes me abrupt and short with people. People who move to the prairies from milder climates frequently insist to me that you “can’t grow anything here.” This is where I get mad, because yes you CAN, and to suggest that the prairies are some sort of barren, desolate wasteland is offensive to me. It requires a bit more effort here sometimes, and you have to know what variety to choose and where to place it, but there are a lot of evergreens available here if you’re willing to do a little extra work in terms of finding them and choosing a good site for them. Yew, false cypress, cliffgreen (Paxistima), boxwood, euonymus, cedar, and even some kinds of Rhododendrons will do well here if given the right care and you’re willing to take a little extra time to get them established.

Today I planted a particular evergreen in a client’s yard and I felt really good about it. It’s not a shrub I get to use very often. The evergreen in question is the Russian cypress, also called the Siberian cypress. (Microbiota decussata) It is the only species in its genus. Everything about this shrub is unusual and interesting! You could be forgiven, at first glance, for mistaking it for a juniper. It looks very much like a juniper although to me it is a bit lacier, and in fact they are closely related. The difference is that unlike junipers, the Russian cypress is luxuriously soft and fluffy. You can cuddle a Russian cypress but a juniper would be far too prickly! The history of the Russian cypress is also very peculiar. In the first place, it was only discovered in 1923, in a fairly small area in the furthest reaches of Siberia. This is a temperate conifer whose existence we’ve only been aware of for less than a century! Then, since the political climate in Russia was…shall we say, somewhat unstable…after its discovery, it was unknown to the rest of the world until nearly 50 years later. It was not until the mid 1980’s that Russian cypress started to become available in the nursery trade.

Easy to grow, the Russian cypress has a strong preference for moist soil but once established, it is also quite impressively drought resistant. It likes good drainage but isn’t particularly fussy. Lois Hole recommended it in her book about trees and shrubs, saying it was a great shrub for a shady area. While Russian cypress will certainly SURVIVE in the shade; it definitely will not flourish. If you really want a Russian cypress to do well, a moist, sunny location is ideal. Dieter Martin has used it in some of the landscaping at the University of Saskatchewan and it is thriving. It has been planted in sites that are protected from the worst of the wind where they get sun and ample moisture. They are lush and verdant and gorgeous. I have also seen it planted quite extensively in some places at the University of British Columbia. Interestingly, it seems to do better in Sk. than in BC and I have been told this is due to its strong preference for cold winters.

Untroubled by pests or disease, the Russian cypress has found a limited audience in the nursery trade I expect because it is usually mistaken for a juniper. It is also quite slow growing, and can sometimes be difficult to establish. It’s unusual for conifers to develop fall colour in our climate but Russian cypress often does, frequently becoming a coppery brown or bronzy colour and then greening up again in the spring. I find this peculiar and interesting; other gardeners have told me they dislike it. (“They look like they’re dying!” one friend said to me.) Perhaps the most intriguing thing about the Russian cypress-which is the only species in its genus- is that it produces the smallest cones of any conifer in the world! They are only 2-3 millimeters long and held in pairs. You are unlikely to notice them unless you search for them specifically.

Usually planted as a groundcover, the Russian cypress normally grows 12-18” tall and 4-6 ft. wide. It takes about 20-30 years to reach full size and they are resentful of being pruned or clipped. In milder climates, they are known to sometimes become larger and a few particularly large specimens (more than 10 ft. in diameter and as much as 4 ft. tall) are known to exist. Easily hardy to 40 below and colder, the RHS has given this shrub their award of merit and I’m always so pleased to be able to put it in someone’s yard. Propagation is usually accomplished by semi-hard cuttings in summer, but they can also be grown from seed if you are the patient sort.

In recent years, a few cultivars of it have been introduced. Proven Winners has introduced one called ‘Celtic Pride’, which is both larger than the species and more vigorous. It is also considerably faster growing and becomes a rusty colour in the fall. ‘Fuzzball’ is a dwarf form ideal for rock gardens and becomes almost a purplish-brown in the winter.

It’s easy to forget that the world is miraculous. The Russian cypress reminds me that the world is full of surprises, and that gardening unlocks a whole realm of mysteries that a lot of people are totally unaware of. If you’re looking for a nice, soft conifer to snuggle with and/or use as a groundcover, I’d like to recommend the Russian cypress.

It’s finally come
Is that sorry on your breath?
Where were you when I was sitting back here
Missing you to death?
It don’t matter now
How, I wanna know
Can you tell me plain and true
How high will you fly
Without me there to be your sky?
Well, it don’t matter now…

From the gorgeous song ‘It Don’t Matter Now’ by the incomparable Alison Krauss, these are the words floating on the air as I sit here typing. I am in Waterton again. It is cold and windy here today; the weather is not conducive to tromping up Crandell Mountain (which was my plan) to visit the extraordinary perennial called beargrass. Perhaps I’ll do it tomorrow. Alison’s voice is as close to angels singing as I will hear in this world. I am not sure how I feel right now.

I don’t know what to do this afternoon. I don’t know what to write, or how to process things. I think I am evolving. Perhaps I am becoming someone new- someone that I haven’t been before but maybe also someone that I have actually been all along. I am finding new versions of myself, changing in the way that a gemstone can change based on the lighting.

I am moving. I am not still. I am moving steadily and faster at times than others, towards new things. Working the wildflower festival is always a bit like a family reunion for me. There are so many people who work in this park that I so deeply love and respect. There are so many like-minded, passionate conservationists here. There are photographers and flower enthusiasts and environmentalists who I see a few times a year and there are lots of hugs and smiles and welcomes and genuinely delighted moments when we find each other. Even the flowers feel like old friends- the Jacob’s ladders and lady’s slippers and lupines and lilies are all plants that I see every year, plants that I love ever more with the passing of time, old familiar allies and friends but also treasures to be protected and watched over.

I love every bear and every bird and every small animal that I interact with. I love every drop of water throwing itself over the mountain into the streams and rivers. I love every sound the wind carries to my ears. I love with an intense, burning devotion the rough fescue dancing on the prairies and I love the exorbitantly beautiful little skunk I saw last night with her shining black and white coat and I love the nectar seeking, fire coloured butterfly who floated past me en route to her breakfast of nectar. Waterton illuminates all the reasons I choose to stay in this world- the earth under my feet and the smell of trees and that glorious moment when a stranger in one of my tour groups smiles and says “aha!” because I have revealed a connection that they were previously unaware of.

I feel that I am both dark and light in the way that a magpie is coloured both dark and light. There is a version of myself that can only grieve and suffer for what we have done to the planet and there is a version of myself who celebrates the good we are capable of, who sees the hummingbird shining on his perch, and who stands beside moving waters and vows to stand up for the last remaining wild places. I suppose the key is to find the balance between these two points and not allow one or the other to become more dominant than the other.

New inspirations are coming to me. I have been filling my journals with notes about garden designs I’d like to do and classes I’d like to teach. Every year Waterton shows me something I haven’t previously seen. My friend Mary just informed me about a thicket of western yew that she found on a trail I have walked many times. I have never seen that particular gathering of yew but I have been thinking about it all day. Western yew is very rare in Alberta; there are not many places where it can be found. How could I have missed it?
The marsh avens (Geum rivale) looks better this year than I have ever seen it; so good that I had to stop my truck and run to it (like lovers running to each other across a beach) and throw myself down beside it and drink in all of its visual loveliness for a good solid 10 minutes. My friend Arden first introduced me to this plant, and I admit I have become rather besotted with it. Growing 1-2 ft. tall, this elegant flower will happily grow in shade or sun as long as it has plenty of moisture. It is great for the edge of a bog or stream and the nodding, unusual flowers are held on velvety, dark coloured stems. It flowers over a long period and is quick to establish. I must go back to this vast clump of them that I found. I must spend some more time with this stunning and sophisticated dweller of ponds and wetlands. How have I not seen it in this place before? How am I only just discovering it now? I was unaware of this plant for a good part of my life. Discovering it was like discovering a long lost friend.

Yesterday on the trail I found lady ferns that are at least 4 ft. tall. They are usually about half that size, but it has been moist this year and the ferns are unfolding frond after luxurious frond. Ferns pre-date dinosaurs. When I touch them I feel the weight of centuries and longer. I am profoundly moved by gatherings of ferns. I don’t know why, and I don’t think it matters why. It is merely a fact of my existence, and something I accept and celebrate. There are never enough ferns in the world. There is never a moment on the trail when a company of ferns does not make me feel something close to rapture. I found two moonworts while out with Charlie Russell yesterday, another fern that I love. The fact that I got to spend an afternoon with acclaimed naturalist Charlie Russell AND encountered a fairly rare fern at the same time is a fact that will cleave my mind in two if I think about it too much.

I am trying to begin each day with gratitude, and I am trying not to be pessimistic or cynical if I can help it. It is an uphill climb. I am so quick to see invasive plants in the park, so quick to place blame on Parks Canada for not doing enough or doing the wrong thing, and I am so quick to assume that everyone in the park is here to approach and harass bears and litter and cause general harm and mayhem. Not everyone who comes to Waterton is here with the right intent or education, it’s true. It is also true, however, that there are many people who come here to experience the same things that I come here for. I must make an effort to meet people where they are, to educate where I can, and to stand back quietly and recognize that I am a temporal being. We are all temporal beings. Waterton was here for thousands of years before we were and it did just fine for itself. These mountains will still be standing long after I’m gone and I have returned to the dust from which I came. Waterton makes me aware of my mortality, but does so in a way that is glorious and sharp and precise. Waterton is a fine blade that cuts away the things that are not relevant, and sends me home more focused and more alert and more myself. I have three more days in the park and I am anxious to see what else will be revealed before I go.

Tomorrow morning I will get up early (as I usually do) and head out to collect seeds. The very first flowers of spring have given way to the first seedheads of summer and gathering seeds is one of the most healing and spiritual practices that I have created for myself. I find the collection of seeds from wild species to be particularly therapeutic. Touching the plants that have been kissed by bees, gathering their seeds into paper bags and envelopes, sowing those seeds and planting those seedlings in the gardens of people I work for brings me enormous satisfaction. Plants have been producing seeds for millions of years, quietly going about the business of living, and I, a temporary being in this world, have to be there at just the right moment to receive those seeds and carry them elsewhere.

The first seeds I gathered this year were those of the native yellow violet. (Viola nuttallii). It is the prettiest little thing, flowering early with bright lemon coloured flowers and then quickly vanishing from sight. Like many of our native plants, it wants moisture and ample water in spring and likes to be dry and baked rather hot in the summer. It is also a notoriously difficult plant to find when it isn’t blooming so going back to collect the seeds is an exercise in futility quite often. In fact this is the first time I’ve ever been successful. Violets also release their seeds quite rapidly- all the seeds could be dispersed and gone by the time you get there if you’re not especially diligent. This year I succeeded, and I’m hoping I will soon have some baby yellow violets to experiment with in landscape designs. What could be as charming?

It has also been a good year for penstemons. They have been (and they are) flowering incredibly well. At least half a dozen species have been putting on a terrific show this month- I’ve been in the Crowsnest Pass several times in the last little while and they have been painting the slopes in wonderful shades of blue and purple and mauve. Closer to home the white penstemon (Penstemon albidus) has flowered more gloriously this year than I have ever seen- there are places where it is so thick it is as though the prairie grass has been filled with long, white candles.

The unfortunately named yellow bells- it’s such an incredibly boring name- is our only native species of Fritillaria. The pendant golden flowers feed the first bees of spring and last only about 10 days but what riots of colour they create in the grasslands; especially if they bloom with the first shooting stars. They are easy to germinate but there are two problems- from seed to bloom takes about five years, and the seedpods are frequently eaten by deer or insects before I can actually gather the seeds. I have found one site very close to the highway where I guess deer don’t feel comfortable foraging; I have gone back to check literally every week since the beginning of May to see if the seeds are ripe; thus far no luck. Tomorrow I shall check again. I want to tell these plants to hurry it up! I literally have to drive 100 km in each direction to check on this site and I’d like to be able to quit doing that already! If there are ripe seeds tomorrow, it is going to be very gratifying! (Going back to check again in a week if they are NOT is going to be a nuisance!)

It’s been a good year for the milkvetches. Milkvetch (Astragalus) belongs in the pea and bean family; they should not be confused with milkweed (Asclepias) or the true vetches (Vicia). I absolutely adore this group of plants. They are incredibly diverse; with well over 3000 species (all native to North America) it seems one could never possibly get to know all of them. Some of our most beautiful wildflowers are milkvetches but just as many are common pasture weeds. Many grow in waste places such as parking lots and ditches. The flowers come in a huge variety of colors and are generally rich in nectar, attracting bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Surprisingly few are cultivated because they have incredibly deep, far reaching roots that largely prevents their use in the nursery trade. They are never the less lovely. They usually flower in late spring or early summer and they bring me a significant degree of joy every year.

The cushion milkvetch (Astragalus triphyllus) grows only 2-4” tall and flowers very early. Its short stature allows it to grow in the windiest of locations, often south facing slopes with poor soil and sharp drainage. It has the most gorgeous silvery foliage and flowers that range from pale yellow through cream often with a faint splash of purple at the interior. The blooms nestle among the leaves and it sits hugging the ground and often blooms at the same time as the first prairie crocus, making it most welcome. It is also one of the most notoriously difficult plants to gather seed from that I have ever encountered. I literally got ONE seed this year. ONE. That’s it. A single seed.

Canada milkvetch (A. canadensis) is more accommodating. It is a summer bloomer, now in bud but not yet flowering, that grows 2-3 ft. tall and usually wider than tall. It will grow in nearly any soil, with gorgeous pinnate foliage and long lasting soft yellow to ivory coloured flowers that feed multitudes of pollinators. It has deep roots and dislikes disturbance but beyond that it is a lovely and worthwhile addition to any sunny garden.

Two-grooved milkvetch (A. bisulcatus) grows about 2 ft. tall and is just coming to the end of its bloom now. It was more spectacular this year than I have ever seen it. It likes full sun, good drainage, and average moisture. The flowers are deep purple to violet, scented, and appear in great profusion. It forms a thick clump of handsome pinnate foliage and is well behaved and tidy in the garden but needs lean soil; give it too rich a diet and it will flop and not bloom well. It has tremendously deep roots (don’t bother trying to dig one out; the roots go all the way to the Himalayas) Entire fields of it bloomed in southern Alberta this year; there were places around Warner and Milk River where a week ago the prairies were stained a luxurious violet in every direction. I walked several kilometers into one of those forgotten places so full of flowers I couldn’t move without stepping on them. I didn’t know whether to weep or dance. A field of native flowers can invoke both despair and rapture in equal measure. Disdained by farmers because it is poisonous to cattle it is never the less loved by bees and butterflies. I will be gathering seeds from it this year.

I had only ever seen Drummond’s milkvetch (A. drummondii) in the Cypress Hills; now it grows within walking distance of my house. This is a handsome plant with downy, soft green leaves and very showy white flowers. It bloomed earlier than normal this year; I will have to try seed collecting again. I got a few seeds last year; none of which germinated. The narrow-leaved milkvetch (A. pectinatus) fills the coulees with drifts of cream coloured flowers in early summer; I have also seen it growing along the Trans-Canada highway and looking spectacular. I gathered seeds from it for the first time this week; we shall see what it wants to do as a garden plant.

I love all the milkvetches; there are so many. I could write a great deal about all of them, but these are the ones that have been the most impressive this year. I feel like I could live another lifetime and not get to know all of them. How gorgeous they all are; how welcome and beautiful and with the capacity to provide so much joy. I would love to see more milkvetches in people’s gardens; I feel like more gardeners should be aware of them.

I’ve also never seen as many Indian breadroots as I have this year. The Indian breadroot, also called Indian turnip (Psoralea esculenta) looks a little bit like a small lupine. It was once a major food source for humans, bears, and gophers. It was so widely used, in fact, that it also became known as “indian potato” and fed Lewis and Clark on their expedition across what became Montana. It was also eaten by the folks on Palliser’s expedition. (Though Palliser declared it as “insipid and offensive”.) When game was unobtainable, many of the first trappers and traders relied on this plant.

A plant with pretty foliage and delicate looking flowers, indian breadroot once grew in large colonies across undisturbed prairie. Today, it is actually quite uncommon. I have only encountered it occasionally. It favours sandy soil and was once very abundant in the Lethbridge area. The tuberous roots are 1-2” long and contain both starch and sugar. They were dug in late summer and could be eaten raw but were usually roasted, and they were sometimes dried for winter use in soups and stews. I’m hoping I will be able to collect some seeds this year. I think it would be so wonderful to try this as a garden plant.

Flowers give way to seeds, and spring gives way to summer, and youth gives way to maturity. I hope I am getting smarter and wiser with age. I hope I am becoming more self-aware and that I am more appreciative of the plants and flowers around me. I think in my early twenties I would not have looked twice at a milkvetch. I think I would have dismissed them as common and better suited to roadsides and ditches than to a garden. I see them differently now. I see lots of things differently now. It’s interesting, this journey through life. I can’t wait to germinate all these seeds I’m collecting…

It’s amazing to me that one can work as hard and be as tired as I am, and yet still suffer from insomnia. I am delighted that May has concluded; June always feels slightly less urgent and within the next few weeks, I will hopefully have concluded most (if not all) of the various gardening projects I have said yes to. I said yes to more than I wanted to, actually. I theorized that if I were really busy, I wouldn’t have time to focus on how depressed I have been. This has been not entirely unsuccessful; my bills are all paid and there are groceries in my fridge and I am absolutely exhausted and there is no shortage of things for me to work on during the day. Also the depression is starting to lift and the clouds have been thinning out. I feel like I am at least traveling in the right direction again. Maybe I’m not all the way back to feeling good yet, but definitely feeling better than I was. I would like to pack most of April and May into a wooden box and nail it shut! May was not an easy month for me this year.

Earlier this week, I acquired a plant I have been coveting for four years. The plant is an intergeneric hybrid and gorgeous and I can’t wait to see what it does! Like, I’m actually almost ecstatic about this plant. I’m having fantasies and daydreams about this plant. Before I explain it further, it might be wise to first describe what an intergeneric hybrid actually is for those who don’t know.
Okay, so every living thing that has been named scientifically belongs in a particular genus. The plural of genus is genera, and so many genera make up a particular family. Hawthorns, cherries, and mountain ash for example are all in the rose family, but each of them belongs in a different genus. They are thus related to each other, but there are limits. You could cross one species of cherry with another- no problem. You could even perhaps cross a cherry and a plum, or a plum and an apricot. All belong in the genus Prunus. Thus they are very closely related. You could not, however, cross a plum and a rose; even though they are in the same family. They belong in different genera; there are limits. In fact, botanists sometimes look at which others a plant could hybridize with (or not) to determine where it should be placed taxonomically. This works with animals too; a donkey and a horse are different species in the same genus; they are capable of interbreeding. A donkey and a rhinoceros however…well, even if they love each other very much, they aren’t going to be able to produce a child together.

Occasionally…very occasionally…you can cross one genus of plants with another that is very closely related. It’s rare, but not as rare as you might think. In the rules of botanical nomenclature, a cross between two genera is to be preceded by a lower case x, indicating hybrid. However, it is almost never written this way except in the most scientific of documents. The coral bells (Heuchera) are in the saxifrage family; they are closely related to foamflower (Tiarella). They can actually be crossed with each other on occasion; the offspring are called Heucherella. It should be correctly written as x Heucherella but rarely is. It has been documented in some orchids (Odontoglossum and Oncidium have been crossed to produce x Odontocidium) and barberry (Berberis) and Oregon grape (Mahonia) have been crossed to produce x Mahoberberis and I think there is even a honeysuckle-weigela hybrid. These intergeneric offspring are totally sterile, but are often more vigorous and beautiful than either of their parents and frequently combine the best traits of both. In these cases, selections are sometimes made for the nursery industry and these are usually propagated by tissue culture.

Now, this is where we get into the exciting plant that I brought home- x Digiplexis. I am a long time fan of the elegant and beautiful foxglove (Digitalis) but I have extremely limited interaction with their relatives from the Canary Islands- the four species of shrubby, evergreen plants called Isoplexis.

Species from the Canary Islands

Both produce colourful, showy flowers in tall spikes, both produce copious amounts of nectar, and both have been loved by gardeners for centuries. Digitalis is easy to grow; Isoplexis is not. Digitalis purpurea produces blooms that may be violet, purple, pink, rose, mauve, white, or lavender while Isoplexis canariensis produces copper coloured to deep orange or apricot flowers. Somewhere in the UK many years ago…a brilliant and enterprising botanist managed to somehow successfully cross Digitalis with Isoplexis and thus combine the best features of both.

If this information isn’t making you shit your pants, then I have failed to convey something to you here. This is astonishing. The best form from this improbable pairing was named ‘Illumination Flame’. Are you ready for this? x Digiplexis ‘Illumination Flame’ grows up to 3 ft. tall. It is a vigorous, well branched plant that does not produce viable seed and will flower profusely for up to eight weeks. It likes the same sort of growing conditions as foxglove (sunny and moist but well drained soil) and does well in containers or in the garden. The enormous flowers vary from hot pink to fuchsia with intensely copper to apricot coloured throats. Hummingbirds and flower arrangers both love them. It is a heavy feeder and limited in hardiness but this is no problem because it makes a great annual too. It can handle more intense heat than either of its parents, grows and establishes quickly, and has won several prestigious awards. Well, yes, I should think that it would! It is absolutely GORGEOUS. It is an unreasonably beautiful plant. I DID get to see it blooming in real life a few years ago on the coast and this only served to further enhance my burning desire to possess it.

I have been coveting and pining for and dreaming about this plant since I first read about it. Now I have one. It wasn’t even expensive. It’s only been with me for a few days and I see it is already starting to form its first flower spike. When it begins to bloom, I’m turning off my cell phone and I plan to just sit with it and bask in its glorious radiance. If you don’t grow things that make you want to call all the neighbours over and exclaim over them, you’re not gardening properly. I should have bought two of them.

I am not having the day I expected to have. I was supposed to leave for Calgary today, and then go do some work in the mountains tomorrow and Saturday coming home again on Sunday. Unfortunately, “inclement weather” in the high country of Banff National Park has pushed my work back significantly. So instead of venturing forth as scheduled, I find myself at home. A fierce and insistent wind came howling across the prairie last night, bringing with it an inch and a half of rain and downing trees and scattering debris hither and yon. It is too wet to work in the garden now, and besides that it is still too blustery and cold to be comfortable out there anyway. I have done indoor things today, mostly. I went out and put up some promotional posters for the wildflower festival, I went to the bank, and I made arrangements to get a Tetanus shot- something I need to do before I leave on the Camino in September. I have had two hazelnut lattes today, I dug through a whole box of documents dating back to 2003 looking for my immunization records (and then realized they are in a drawer at mom and dad’s house), and I spoke to my friend Mary Lynn on the phone briefly. I was going to stay at her house tonight in Calgary and obviously that’s not happening now so there was disappointment on both sides. Anything can happen in a day, I suppose. We are never sure what will happen next, are we?

My friends Marie and Len have a place in Hawaii that they visit every year. Marie actually PHONED ME all the way from Molokai about two weeks ago and asked for my mailing address. I asked her what in the world she was sending me. She wouldn’t say, but I have been watching the mailbox ever since. This morning the most mysterious thing was delivered to me- a coconut seed! Not only that, but Marie wrote my address and affixed all the stamps TO the coconut! There was no box, no packaging, no paper…zip! Just a coconut with my name and address and two approval stickers from the appropriate government channels. I laughed so hard! This is by far the most amusing thing to have happen in some period of time! The coconut palm produces the second largest seed of any plant in the world (only the related palm the coco de mer has a larger seed) and with all of the documentation and approvals attached, a hand-painted coconut seed came straight to my door today. What a world we live in! My landlady was very perplexed by this odd object and when I explained what it was she asked what I was going to actually DO with it. “I suppose I’ll have to plant it…” I said and she roared with laughter! I don’t know seriously if I’ll do that but it is sitting here beside me as I type these words and it is making me very happy. Hello, coconut palm tree seed…so nice to have you here with me, full of hope and life as you are, ha ha.

I would have been quite content with only my coconut but two hours later another box was delivered. This was a box full of plants from a west coast nursery that I love. I placed the order in January and in all honesty I had totally forgotten what I ordered. So this was like Christmas at my house! (Only better because I got exactly what I wanted.) There were some woodland perennials for a client and a couple of Penstemons (because I am fully addicted to them and always need more) and some stuff that I will share with friends. A few items I was credited for because they were unavailable this year. It’s all good. I had a lovely time unboxing them, repotting a few of them, watering them, and getting them ready for their re-entry to the world after a four day sojourn across the country via Canada Post. I ordered a New York fern (Thelypteris noveborecensis) and for the life of me, I could not remember why I had ordered it. Was it for someone? Was it a mistake? Did someone ask me specifically to find this plant for them? I looked at the date of the order and went back to my garden journal to find out if I could glean any insight into my thought process. I had fully detailed the order there and under New York fern I have written pot up and keep in greenhouse for summer; use for depression control. This made me smile. I got a wonderful new fern today because a few months ago I decided to be a good friend to myself. Good job, Lyndon! It’s important that we are gracious and kind to ourselves. It is one thing to know this, another to practice it. Anyway, I am pleased with what I bought for myself. New York ferns are both beautiful and aggressive (possibly like the people who actually live in New York?) and are quite specific about their needs. They are also hardy and tough, and most likely due to their need for excessive water they aren’t often grown in our part of the world. I’m not sure who I will gift this fern to in September but if anyone has a damp, sheltered spot that stays moist or even wet through the summer months and would like to give it a try, please let me know. In the mean time, my new fern and I are going to get acquainted with one another and I think it’s time for another cup of coffee.

“If I ever hang myself”, I said to a friend this evening, “it will be with this shit.” I was referring to landscape fabric. God, how I hate that stuff! People use it because they believe it forms an impenetrable barrier to weeds. It does no such thing. What it really does is impede the flow of air, water, and nutrients through the soil and there is nothing in the world worse than weeds that have grown through landscape fabric. I also read recently about how it prevents ground nesting and tunneling species of native bees from using otherwise suitable habitat. It is a very successful product in terms of sales- people are lazy and landscape fabric claims to offer an easy alternative to weeding and actually doing hard physical work. I had a significant number of things to plant this evening and used valuable time and effort to instead yank out, rip out, and otherwise remove fabric that should never have been used in a perennial border to begin with. Had I known it was there lurking beneath the soil, I would have declined this project. It is something I absolutely loathe and see no place for in a civilized society. Our gardening ancestors would have been astonished and horrified at such a product. Rightly so.

I’ve not written anything for a long time. This is in part because I’ve been busy and haven’t had time, but also because I haven’t had anything to say. For the last six weeks or so, perhaps longer, I have been battling a fugue of depression and despair the likes of which I haven’t had in years. A heavy, pervading sense of desolation has saturated me and I have felt anxious, overwhelmed, afraid, unmotivated, toxic, angry, and upset for weeks. Like a drowning swimmer, I have clung to flowers and birds and the small glimmers of good that are always visible if you deliberately seek them out. Oh, but it has been hard. It has been terribly hard. It has been a battle every single day. I have been exhausted, strung out, furious, melancholic and enraged all at once, with each emotion armed with blades and swords and fighting to be the one on top.

This isn’t a nice way to feel, and it isn’t something nice to talk about. I hate feeling this way. I really hate talking about feeling this way.I don’t want to bring anybody down. I hate having to deal with this. I also hate feeling helpless, powerless, upset, and disproportionately annoyed at the situations I have to deal with. So I find myself making jokes, as I did this evening, about hanging myself. Dark subject matter that isn’t funny, but if we find the humour then perhaps we make it less dark. Is that the logic? I don’t know. I have said very little about my depression to anyone for a variety of reasons. I don’t want sympathy. I don’t want attention. There isn’t anything you can do to help. Yes, I know you are there to talk to if I need to. Yes, I am aware that I am loved and that I am not alone. These are helpful things to be aware of, and I am indeed aware of them. I just haven’t wanted to discuss my issues with anyone other than a medical professional. Oh, there are a great host of medications available for those of us harangued by the “black dog”, as Churchill called it. You just have to find the right medication, at the right dose, for the right amount of time and the meds can have side effects too. They can make you feel like you are underwater or they can prevent you from having any interest in sex or relationships and they can make you indifferent to the point of being cavalier about your very existence. Sometimes they don’t work at all, and you have to go back to the drawing board after a few weeks. In most cases what the meds do is just take the edge off so that you can function and get through your day, but they don’t really relieve the despair and sense of falling into the abyss.

I think I’m what you would call a “high functioning” depression sufferer. I usually don’t want anyone to know how I’m feeling, so I fake it. I’m really good at it. I know other depression sufferers who have days where they can’t get out of bed. Days where they just can’t take on the world even a little. In an effort to ensure that no one knows how toxic and yucky the inside of my head is, I just get up and get on with things. I am often weirdly proud of this fact. I don’t know why. I taught classes at the University of Saskatchewan for three days this week and I did so with enthusiasm and confidence and made sure that no one had any idea that my brain is basically a bag of cats. I am good at my job, and I like flowers, and if people pay perfectly good money to come to a class and hear about flowers, I am damn well going to suck it up and smile and laugh and be funny and smart and teach the best friggin gardening class I am capable of teaching. I also like to sometimes imagine at the end of the class accepting the Oscar for best actor in a dramatic role… I might not feel good inside but I can make sure that no one suspects. After class I go home (well, I was staying at my mom and dad’s place) and lie down and stare at the ceiling and review all the reasons that the world is entirely messed up beyond saving and ask myself what I’m still doing here.

To help combat this way of thinking, I made it a point to start writing down- every single day before I go to bed- three things that made me happy that day. It is mostly about re-training the brain to deliberately seek the good and beautiful things.
Lovely kind people like you have sent me messages recently gaily assuming that I’m just busy gardening (which is true) and that’s why I haven’t written anything. Well, the truth is less enjoyable to write about so I just haven’t written.

I thought tonight I would share the three things that I am putting in my gratitude journal today.

Yesterday I was in the Crowsnest Pass and on the way out there, I passed a lovely hillside (with blooming balsamroot, I might add) where a whole family of foxes were out enjoying the sun. This made me smile so much and it was so unexpected that today while I was gardening I returned to this image again and again. Four little glorious red foxes- their coats like glowing copper and their smart little faces and all of them brand new to the world. Little foxes who will learn to hunt for mice and how to outsmart the rabbits and how to make their way in the world. I love foxes. I love how resourceful and gorgeous and superbly adapted they are and when I think of this little fox family that I stopped to watch, for a moment it pulls me out of the muck. I would love to sit down on that hillside with those foxes and have them curl up in my lap and go to sleep and just cuddle them for days. Ah, lovely little foxes! Thank you for being conduits to the Divine.

Salvia pratensis is a gorgeous and hardy species of Salvia found across cold places in Europe and Asia. I love the salvias- the whole genus enthralls me and there are many species. Last year I found a place just west of Pincher Creek where this species has naturalized through one of the ditches- something I hadn’t seen before. I gathered seed from them and germination was easy; I ended up with far more than I needed. A week and a half ago, I forgot to bring them in one night and they got a hard frost. I swore a lot. They have since recovered. They have recovered so beautifully, in fact, you would never know they had experienced any unpleasantness. I planted some in a client’s garden tonight, and I will even make a bit of money on these seedlings. As I was planting them and marveling at their ability to endure and survive, I remembered that the name Salvia means “to save”- the word salvation is derived from the same source in fact. Gardening has the ability to save us. Well, it has certainly saved me. These seedlings reminded me that some of us must endure “hard frosts” in our lives sometimes, but oh how much stronger and better we are once we are past it. I thought that was a good lesson for me.

The final entry in today’s list is the Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden here in Lethbridge. Some good friends of mine who I don’t get to see very often were visiting and that alone would be reason for gratitude but I took them to our Japanese garden for reflection and contemplation, beauty and rest, joy and renewal. This is not a garden that disappoints; this is a garden that reaches out to you and meets you where you are. To have such a garden to experience with friends that we love is a gift indeed, and it is something I will remind myself to hold onto.

May is cruising along, faster and faster. Every day disappears down a tunnel and never comes back. Life is a challenge sometimes, and it is difficult, but life is also beautiful. There is despair and hopelessness in great measure, and there is grief and heartbreak and things even worse than that. There are also sunny hillsides where families of foxes play, and Japanese gardens where I can hear water falling over rocks. There are friends waiting to help me if I fall, and I am grateful to be finding my way back to myself. If I just keep going a little further, I’m sure I’ll find my way back into the light.

I haven’t been to see my doctor yet. I have to go to Sk. for a week in May so I thought it was better to book an appointment with my family doctor in Saskatoon rather than see a random doctor here or in Calgary. (*I used to have a really good doctor in Calgary but he has relocated to Ontario.) I have deliberately made my schedule as busy as possible in order to distract me from all the things that are happening in my brain. Having a very full schedule has helped. Unpleasant things are happening in my head so I am trying to just work around that and ignore my own thoughts. I have actually been sleeping, which is remarkable. Diabetics and epileptics and kidney dialysis patients and people who have cancer all still have to get up in the morning and go about their normal lives as much as possible. The sun does not cease to come up just because you might not be feeling well. I have been “carrying on” as it were and trying to focus on all the fabulous, amazing things that are coming up on my schedule. I went on a short hike with a friend on Friday and was busy doing botany work and guide work all weekend so that left me little time to think about anything else, which was perfect. Anxiety and depression are making a very concerted effort to bring me down so today I had to bring in “the big guns”. By this I mean I had no choice but to buy myself a new fern. I also bought a gorgeous, brilliant green ceramic pot that was on half price as it was from last year’s inventory.

Ferns as a means of combatting depression is not something that has been intensively studied, as far as I know. I feel the same way about ferns that many people feel about orchids; I am quite mad about them, and they have an intensely calming effect on me for some reason. Last year I had six ferns that spent the summer in my greenhouse and they were tremendously happy in there. I enjoyed their company very much. All of those ferns but for one (which went to live in Drumheller) went out to the coast with me in fall to take up residence in Diana’s garden. I don’t know how they have fared out there; Diana tells me the north shore had a particularly harsh winter and many of her perennials didn’t make it. I am sure the ferns will have been fine; at least I hope so. Since I am going to be doing quite a lot of work for the Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden here in Lethbridge this year, it seemed appropriate to me to buy a Japanese fern.

The Japanese holly fern (Cyrtomium falcatum) is found all over the eastern parts of Asia (including Japan) but has now naturalized throughout the globe. It is a gorgeous evergreen fern with glossy, interesting foliage that somewhat resembles holly. (If you have some imagination.) It frequents cliffs, crevices, streambanks and rocky slopes with moist to wet conditions and high humidity. The leaves are very leathery to the touch and plants are compact and small to medium in size. Although it does not divide easily, it spreads via spores with no trouble or effort and thus colonizes very freely. It adapts well to light or deep shade and requires only the most average soil- unusual as many ferns are heavy feeders. As you can imagine, a fern that favours rocky soil and the spray from waterfalls is not exactly ideally suited to Alberta’s growing conditions. It’s also hardy only to about zone 7. That aside, the Japanese holly fern is such a robust grower and so vigorous that it is often sold as a houseplant or seasonal plant. Even big box stores often stock it in their perennial section. It can make a splendid annual if planted beside a shady pond or stream but mine shall live out its days in the new “kiwi green” ceramic pot in my greenhouse. If this fern lasts only a season, it is of no consequence. I paid less than 10 dollars for it and just the act of bringing it home and repotting it already made me feel better. It’s really, really beautiful. Ferns as companions are very underrated. They are quiet and elegant and extremely old; ferns pre-date dinosaurs. They have seen it all before. There are no surprises if you happen to be a fern. They are primitive and sophisticated at the same time. My friend Carol recently told me about a European artist who married a large stone. She had a whole ceremony and everything. (Her name is Tracey Emin if you’d like to Google her.) Perhaps if I really become undone, I will marry a fern. (*Although if that happens, I would hope the people who care about me will cart me off to the funny farm and get me some professional help.)

As I have said before, there is really not enough light in my greenhouse. I will not get into the logistics of why that is so, but needless to say, a greenhouse with inadequate light is hardly ideal. Thus I have had to make a decision; not enough light or not warm enough? I have been putting plants outside as much as possible for as long as possible. This of course helps to harden them off and in reality, outside is the best place for them. Well, theoretically. Some of the plants have thrived on this diet of “tough love” but others are not faring so well. The Nicotiana looks downright ill. Many of the leaves have shrivelled and bleached and I fear that many of them will not make it. I feel awful about this but I didn’t really have a choice. The cleome has also fared very poorly. So poorly that I would be embarrassed to sell it to anyone as it looks right now, and I was really growing this for a client. I may have to declare them a “crop failure” but I am hoping the temperatures will warm up and they will bounce back. This is what is known as “unwarranted optimism”.

I don’t know if I have ever blogged about cleome (pronounced clee-oh-me) but I really should. There are about 170 species and they are in the caper family; not a group that is well represented in gardens. Most of these plants are weeds, though there are two incredible exceptions. Cleome hassleriana is sometimes called spider flower because of the long, thin floral parts that I suppose are vaguely spider-like. These are large, course plants with interesting foliage and spikes of ethereal looking blooms that feed multitudes of bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Native to South America, this is a tall plant that grows 4-5 ft. tall and wide and makes an excellent annual hedge or windbreak. The leaves (which somewhat resemble marijuana foliage) have an unpleasant scent when broken or crushed and they are untouched by diseases or pests, including deer and jackrabbits.

Easy from seed but resentful of transplanting, I suspect that cleome never achieved much in the way of popularity for this reason and the fact that they take up quite a lot of room- they won’t suit every garden. The flowers may be white, pink, lilac, rose, lavender, or mauve and have a gentle, sweet fragrance most noticeable on warm, calm days. The ‘Queen’ series grows about 5 x 5 and is available in white, rose, and violet. It has received the RHS award of merit. ‘Helen Campbell’ is a particularly robust, large white flowered cultivar that is beguiling by moonlight. The ‘Sparkler’ series is of recent origins and the bicolor pink-white form ‘Sparkler Blush’ won the prestigious AAS award in 2002. This series is extremely compact (only 24”) and very free flowering, making it good for large containers.

Grow cleome in full sun and average soil. They are quite drought resistant and generally begin to flower in mid to late July, blooming into September. They are great for creating a little “drama” in the garden, but they also have an old fashioned, somewhat mysterious quality to them that I greatly enjoy. Cleome can handle heat and the stems are very strong- despite being such large plants, they rarely break in the wind. Both stems and leaves are armed with discreet but very sharp little prickles so watch your fingers.

Cleome is sensitive to temperature and will not perform well if it is too cold. Hardening them off can be a challenge; they suffer if they get too cold for too long and it takes a long time for them to recover. Such has been the fate of my cleome; they germinated beautifully but anything less than 15 degrees and they become very cantankerous. I am going to experiment with direct sowing them this year and see what happens. They did not do well for me in Lethbridge last year, nor did they do well in Calgary. In fact, I don’t recall them ever being fabulous for me in Calgary now that I think about it. Last year I asked for them at Vale’s Greenhouse in Black Diamond (one of my favourite places to shop) and Katherine, the owner, said she doesn’t grow them anymore. “Not suited to the foothills”, she said. “They’re always happy in Manitoba and Ontario but we can’t give them what they want here.” I fear she is right.

We are lucky enough to have a single native species of cleome, and it is sometimes called Rocky Mountain bee plant. Cleome serrulata sometimes grows in huge colonies where conditions suit it. Growing anywhere from 1-5 ft. tall, it is a strong stemmed annual plant that produces very showy clusters of bright pink flowers with long stamens. It is a very rich nectar source that draws flurries of bees as the name would imply, but is also visited by nectar feeding moths, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Blooms usually appear in late July through August and give way to long seedpods that resemble small, very thin beans. The foliage has a horrible scent when bruised or crushed, and this makes it unpalatable to nearly all grazing creatures, making it useful in a garden.

Although it is an annual, bee plant self seeds profusely and you could for all intents and purposes consider it perennial. Unwanted seedlings are easily removed, and it is best in a sunny spot with average, well drained soil. It tends to grow in ditches, on the edges of pastures, and sometimes the edges of back alleys and parking lots. It is easy to gather some seeds and sow some in your garden. I have seen great waving swaths of it growing beside the #1 highway between Swift Current and Maple Creek and my mother has grown it in her own garden for years, allowing it to self seed wherever it pleases.

When I used to live in the Calgary neighbourhood of Kensington, I noticed one day that the native cleome was growing and flowering all along the riverbank near the 10th St. bridge. I was so pleased about this, and I actually thought that it must have been planted by the city. I was so delighted that they were actually using native plants in their designs and I made it a point to gather some seed later in the season. A few weeks later when I went back, it was impossible to find even a single plant remaining. I was (and continue to be) baffled by this. Did this plant grow of its own accord, only to be identified as a “weed” and removed? I don’t know, but I suspect that is what happened. Cleome often grows on disturbed ground (as many annuals do) and since they were doing some work down there, I wonder if the conditions were merely right for the seeds to grow and germinate. I strongly suspect the cleome was either incorrectly identified, or city workers didn’t have the sense to leave it in place. Its removal was tragic no matter the reason. Bees were so happy foraging in it and it was so beautiful down there by the river, casting its reflection in the water. It’s rare for a native plant to just show up and flourish in the inner city, and then to be removed (probably by people who were being paid to remove it) just makes me unspeakably sad. People need to be educated. Those of us who know about plants, about ecology, about bees, about connectedness, we just have to keep speaking out and writing and teaching and talking and distributing information to those around us. It is so critical and so important and it is also so exhausting. I find that I feel tired a lot of the time. A friend who works in horticulture said to me recently “I find it just so exasperating that I have to keep teaching COMMON SENSE to people”- this after she had to explain to a 60-something year old woman that no, you shouldn’t pour gasoline in your yard as a form of weed control.

There’s lots to be depressed about in the world. There’s lots of things that can (and perhaps even should) induce a deep and serious anxiety in people. I constantly worry about my nephews. I fear for the world they will inherit. I despair at length about all the things I notice out and about in the world, and all the things that other people seem not to notice. (I just had to explain to someone why Donald Trump being president is upsetting for me and should be upsetting for her too. I was completely drained afterwards.) Sometimes (often) it is overwhelming to think about what is valued in the world and what is not. I frequently feel like I am up against great walls of darkness and I am trying to light a candle inside a tornado. It’s not easy to be an environmentalist, or an ecologist, or a gardener in the world we live in. If I think about this too long, I start to think that maybe just being a person is hard. I have to do things more slowly, and withdraw, and pursue solitude sometimes. (I have been ignoring my phone and my e-mails all week as a matter of fact.) We all must find a means of coping. When the world is mine, I intend to make it mandatory that a fernery be included in the design for all mental health institutions.

Everyone is doing everything wrong” my brain keeps loudly insisting. “Nobody cares about anything! Why are you even bothering with this!?!?” It’s difficult to enjoy yourself when your inner monologue is such a complete asshole to you every minute of the day. After many months of being largely unmedicated (I have stuff I can take if I feel a panic attack coming on), I am finding myself having to schedule some time with the doctor again.

For the last 10 days or so, my anxiety has been through the roof and I have been doing my best to ignore it. Depression and anxiety are often co-conspirators but not always. Anxiety has been the far louder voice lately. Absolutely everything is causing me anxiety. Not just a mild case of “I have some misgivings about this…” but more like “oh my god I can’t actually function today because nothing is all right.” Normal people who have nothing wrong with them feel anxious sometimes- things like having a job interview or an exam tomorrow can cause those sort of feelings. The kind of anxiety that I suffer from is far more ominous than that. It is a vague and yet very heavy sense of impending DOOM. Your brain becomes absolutely convinced that something really awful is about to happen at any minute and you don’t know what it is or how it will play out but I can tell you that it’s absolutely crippling.

The Cottonwood Nature Reserve on the very furthest western outskirts of Lethbridge has been for a long time my favourite place to go walking. It combines three things I value- the grass covered coulees, the cottonwood forest, the flowing river, and solitude and peace. There are lots of flowers and wildlife there too. I have had to make the difficult decision this week to stop walking there every day. I had an epiphany and realized that starting my day there is making everything worse. Dogs and bikes are not allowed in the city nature reserves, which I have written about before. Almost daily, I find bike tracks there. The reason bikes are not allowed is because they contribute to packed soil and erosion. People do not read the signs or if they do, they ignore them. I routinely find dog shit in the park, right in the path. Finding dog shit anywhere is disgusting; finding it in places where dogs are not allowed is especially irritating. People do not pick up after their dogs here and I do not know why. Last week, I had to go to the police station because a van full of young ladies were shooting up and doing drugs in the Cottonwood parking lot at 8 in the morning. Every day I have to bring a garbage bag or two and clean up litter because people toss their beer cans, cigarettes, Tim Hortons cups, etc. right out the window instead of using the bins provided. I find this upsetting and exhausting to deal with.

Down in the valley, I stress because there are too many deer and not enough predators, there are no bison and no fires to manage the ecosystem we are supposed to be protecting (which means the habitat the rattlers need is slowly but surely changing into something unsuitable for them), and several times a week I encounter people ignoring the no dog rule. When I point this out to them, they almost consistently become belligerent and abusive. I find this stresses me out in the extreme. It just isn’t worth my stress levels anymore. It’s to the point where I see other vehicles in the tiny little parking lot and my heart rate suddenly spikes. Walking in Cottonwood is supposed to calm and relax me and it is doing the opposite.

Introduced weeds such as leafy spurge and thistles are not being managed down there. Cattle got in last year and no one did anything about it until I called the city twice. I feel like I’m the only person who cares about that space and feeling heartbroken and sad every morning when I begin my walk just isn’t worth it. So I can’t walk there anymore. I just can’t.

I am easily frustrated and stressed out. Sometimes more so than at other times. I worry about where my next pay cheque is coming from, and Saskatchewan’s premier Brad Wall has just made a significant cut to agricultural education. (Great idea in a province as dependent on agriculture as Saskatchewan. Just terrific.) This means less money is available to pay instructors like me to come and teach there. I worry (realistically) about the entire horticulture department being shut down (excuse me “phased out”) or it gets blended with another department and cuts become referred to as “integration”. A good part of my yearly income is from teaching and I don’t want to lie awake at night worrying that it may be coming to an end soon. Worrying about it doesn’t do any good of course, but trying telling that to my inner self. As I type these words, my inner self I am SURE is working on a list of “situations both realistic and imaginary that we could be stressing about right NOW.”

Spring is the time of year I should be happiest. Instead, I drive around town and see totally unqualified people with pruning shears absolutely butchering and destroying local trees and shrubs. It makes me absolutely bonkers. Like just driving through my neighbourhood is starting to upset me because I keep seeing so much butchery and mutilation. This week I have seen at least three apple trees pruned so badly that it was physically jarring to me, I have seen conifers and other evergreens “limbed up”, removed, or otherwise mangled, and if I see one more lilac, mockorange, or forsythia being pruned into the shape of a sphere, cube, or light bulb I am going to scream. I really need those blinders that they used to make the big draft horses wear.

There’s not enough light in my greenhouse, but it hasn’t really been warm enough to put plants outside for very long. I worry about the fact that I have to be away for an entire week in May and three days at the end of this month and I am leaving someone young and inexperienced in charge. The person I have hired seems capable and I am hoping he will do a good job; this doesn’t prevent me from being a complete stress ball the entire time I am away or stressing about it before I leave. I have been speaking to environmentalist friends in America this week and the decisions that Trump is making are so horrifying and upsetting to me that I have literally called a moratorium with these friends and said tell me no more. I just can’t handle it. I can’t think of anything more upsetting or anxiety inducing than actively trying to be an environmentalist in 2017, especially in North America.

Then there is the fact that I am going to walk the camino in September. This is actually the greatest bright spot on my calendar; the one shining beacon I am steadily moving towards. I couldn’t be more excited about it and this is also one of the reasons I have to make myself walk every day. Right now I am trying to walk for about two hours every day; I will be increasing this amount gradually the closer to the camino I get. I have received some unsolicited advice this week from people I know who think it’s not a good idea for me to attempt this. Well, I actually don’t care what anyone else thinks. I’m going to do this, I’m going to have a great time, and anyone who doesn’t think I can do it can just cram it with walnuts! I am not interested in any feedback other than “that’s terrific and I know it will be a wonderful experience for you.”

So, take everything I’ve just said in the preceding paragraphs and set it aside for a moment. I want to also mention all the things that I am counter-balancing my anxiety and sadness with. The first butterflies of the year (mourning cloaks) are out and about and they are beautiful. Butterflies appear to have no idea that the world is a harsh and dangerous place. The magic and wonder of seeds germinating in my greenhouse gets me through. I just sowed a bunch of pink dandelions and the seeds began to grow in as little as three days. I saw the first bumblebee of the year a few days ago and I am not going to lie; I squealed like a little girl because I was so excited! The buffaloberries, Hood’s phlox, prairie crocus, and even the first buffalo beans are blooming in the coulees. Today I saw a killdeer, a red tailed hawk, a pelican, and the first painted turtles of the year. Meadow larks are singing. I have heard owls and pheasants calling this week. The magpies are as industrious and engaging as they have ever been. I saw a fox winding his way through the willows to get down to the river bank and he was like a ribbon of red fire. It made my heart absolutely soar. Today I saw a muskrat sitting quietly by the water and chewing some sort of root he had dug out. He was very casual and relaxed and I wanted to trade places with him. I watched a pair of gray partridges strolling through the tall, dry grass and they were so cute and so charming it lifted all of my anxiety for one glorious, shining moment.

There is so much beauty in the world, and so many wonderful things to explore and so many things to learn that I should never be bored. Friends have called me this week to check on me and see how I’m doing. I am reminded every single day that there are people who love me and care about me. I so often think “God, I just hate people…” when I see litter and disrespect and environmental degradation. Then I think about poetry and music and love and how many people have worked so hard to protect grasslands, to educate others, to try and make gardens that serve pollinators and birds and local wildlife. I do not “hate people” even when my brain tries to tell me that I do. Human beings are capable of great things. We have written tremendous stories, we have accomplished extravagant things, and we have conducted studies that have unlocked biological secrets that had not been revealed since the creation of the world. There is so much we know about in detail that the ancients could not have dreamed of knowing. A hug, a smile, the laughter of a friend, the certainty that all is not lost- not yet- these are all things that I wrap in gold and cling to when I am certain that leaving the house is a really bad idea. Thus far, I have been managing quite well. Maybe anxiety is just part of existence. Maybe it doesn’t need to be medicated away or maybe it can’t be. Maybe it just needs to be controlled by insisting that the world is amazing and thrilling even when I feel indifferent to it. Maybe anxiety is the burden that all sensitive people must bear. My friend Arden has talked about this; the more aware of the earth you are, the more painful life becomes. This is because you see the devastation and the loss that others do not see. She may be on to something.

Lately I have had such a hard time being present in my own life. It has been so difficult recently for no real reason. I have really nothing to complain about and yet here I am complaining. My sleep patterns for the last while have also been a source of irritation- not insomnia exactly but being unable to fall asleep until three or four in the morning and then sleeping through my alarm and not getting up until 10. This drives me absolutely NUTS. I hate it when this happens. It makes me grouchy and cantankerous- well, more so than usual. If I sleep through my alarm, I feel like my whole day is ruined and I can’t get it back. There’s no reason to feel this way, which is part of the problem with anxiety. It’s illogical and unfounded and yet still ever present.

I have to find ways that I can exist in the world without being undone by the world. I am sensitive and fragile when I should be bold and indignant, and I have been overly bold and combative when I should keep my mouth shut and let things go. How does one ever sort out when to do which? At what age does one begin to arrive at wisdom and at which point does one develop the gift of discernment? Trying to sort everything out in life is completely exhausting.

So I am formulating a plan. The first thing to do is to see my doctor. The second thing to do is to try desperately to focus on what matters and to ignore everything that doesn’t. I must remind myself that it is not my responsibility to save the world. I am not God, and thus my powers are limited. As far as I know, it is unlikely that God is going to relinquish to me his responsibilities and put me in charge of anything. I am the minister of nothing. I only have to live a simple and uncomplicated life. I am not the CEO of anything. I am a minimalist and a free spirit. These are good things, not bad. I must remind myself that I can take nothing with me when I die, and I am accountable only for my own actions. What the world does or does not do is not up to me. I only have to be on this planet for like another 50 or 60 years or so and that’s it. In the grand scheme of things, that isn’t very long. I’ll just keep reminding myself of that and keep praying that it will be summer soon. Once summer is here, I can throw myself into my work with complete, reckless abandon and I can make myself far too busy to think about all the ways in which my brain keeps trying to destroy itself. Hurry up and get here, summer, because I need you.

It totally slipped my mind that Easter was this weekend. I mean, I didn’t even buy myself an Easter lily this year. I’m vaguely irritated that Easter lilies seem to be getting shorter and shorter. The original species grows about 3-4 ft. Now you can but an Easter lily at Walmart and it has six to eight flowers and it’s only 6-8” tall. I realize dwarfing them makes them much easier to ship but it also strips them of their natural elegance. They also have a much reduced fragrance from the Easter lilies of my childhood. It’s possible that I’m sub-consciously boycotting the dwarfing of our favourite plants. I’ve blogged about that before- “now more compact!”- is a refrain that gardening catalogues are often trumpeting as a virtue. Some plants should be tall. Not everything needs to be half the calories and reduced in size. Many plants are valuable precisely because of the size that they grow to. I do not want or need another dwarf lily, dwarf monkshood, dwarf hosta, nor anything else. Leave my plants the size they are, please, but I digress…

It has been very windy here today. Sunny, but with a cold wind. Buffaloberries, Hood’s phlox, and even the very first buffalo beans are flowering in the coulees. I went tromping around for nearly two hours but it got to a point where it was so windy I just wasn’t enjoying myself. This seems to have happened a lot lately. Tomorrow will be another day of seeding. Mostly it will be “exotics” (seeds I brought home from Australia) but also some normal stuff like stocks (thank you, Megan!), castor beans, and a few other assorted goodies.

I’m going to seed some angel’s trumpet (Datura) tomorrow and I’m looking forward to it as I haven’t grown it for a few years. The seedcoats are very hard; I went through and individually rubbed down over 20 seeds with a nail file today to help them germinate faster and more consistently. When I used to work for Boychuk Greenhouses in Saskatoon, we used to go through the seeds and nick each seed with a pin and you would do this for hours and go cross eyed and get a headache doing it. When all of the seeds had been nicked, Rita would pour boiling (or near boiling) water over them and let them soak overnight. We almost always had 90 or 95% germination. If you just let them germinate naturally, it can take 30-90 days for the seedcoats to soften enough for the embryo to emerge. For this reason many people sow angel’s trumpet in February. A little knowledge, however, and you can start them in mid April and be none the worse off for it. Just keep in mind they do not like to be pot-bound and will greatly suffer and perform poorly if they are allowed to become root-bound. (*Don’t buy such a plant from a garden center either.)

All species of Datura are either annual or perennial, and their individual blossoms last only 12-15 hours. Never mind this; the flowers are produced in profusion over a very long period. Datura should not be confused with the closely related genus Brugmansia, which shares the common name of angel’s trumpet. There are many differences (as well as similarities) between them, but I’ll not get into that here.

All true species of Datura are native to the southern United States, Mexico, and South America. They like a warm, sheltered location with plenty of water but sharp drainage. They grow quite quickly when they are happy, they are sensitive to frost, and there are a number of hybrid forms, named cultivars, and even variegated varieties available. The normal flower colour is white but they can also be pale yellow, lilac, soft pink, or light purple. They are great in flowerbeds or large containers, bloom for months, and are large, showy, and dramatic.

The large green leaves are not especially handsome; it is for the flowers that one grows these plants. The blooms are up to 6” long, magically unfurling in the evening into incredible, trumpet shaped blooms that release the most delicious fragrance, particularly on warm, calm evenings. They should be planted where you like to sit in the evening with a glass of wine and the white flowers will positively glow in the dark. The reason for these highly visible, highly scented blooms is to attract a series of night flying, nectar feeding moths with exceedingly long tongues. The moths drink the nectar and (most probably unbeknownst to them) also pollinate the flowers. If pollination is successful, medium to large, rather prickly seedpods will develop. These are sometimes known as “thorn apples”. They will split open when they are ripe and it is easy to gather your own seed, although if you save seed from a hybrid the offspring will likely not be all that satisfactory.

Many years ago I worked with a wonderful woman named Joan who had a strain with especially large flowers. She had gotten the seeds from her mother, who had always called them “moon lilies”. I thought that a most pleasing name. I wish I still had some of that seed; the last I heard of Joan was a few years ago when someone told me that she and her husband had retired and bought a cabin at Candle Lake in Saskatchewan. Good for her, I say. I hope they are still growing these lovely flowers.

The one other thing often cited about angel’s trumpet is their toxicity. They are in the nightshade family, which makes them close relatives of petunias and tobacco, but also potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. Many species were used in ancient Mexico to “commune with the gods”- minute amounts were smoked to bring on visions. So people make rather a big deal of the plant’s hallucinogenic properties, but it should be noted there are a great many other plants that are also poisonous. The up side…deer and rabbits and other pests will almost never touch this plant. The down side…people sometimes get hysterical if you tell them you are growing something that could kill you. (“Won’t someone please think of the children!?!?”) If eaten (or smoked, for that matter), angel’s trumpet can indeed bring about hallucinations but it can and does also cause severe stomach distress, heart failure, convulsions, coma, and of course the most significant of all side effects; death. This is good information to have, but what is the probability that someone is going to actually eat or smoke it? Angel’s trumpet is extremely, horrifically bitter in smell and taste. I cannot imagine someone eating a single bite without spitting it out. I certainly can’t conceive of someone deliberately putting it in their mouth. I have read cases where people (re: teenagers) have died because they experimented with smoking it so let me be clear; do NOT, for any reason, attempt to smoke either Datura or Brugmansia. There. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s move on.

Sitting next to me as I type this are a few small, cut branches (twigs, really) from one of our native gooseberries,Ribes oxyacanthoides. Found from Saskatchewan to Newfoundland and south nearly to Tennessee, this incredibly sharp and spiny species makes a very formidable barrier plant but also a great nesting site for birds. It grows about 3 ft. tall and 4 ft. wide, with edible (though not tasty) dark red to purple fruit in late summer. It makes a good, informal low hedge and has beautiful red to bronze or sometimes even plum purple fall color. It often grows in dry, rocky areas and also has good mildew resistance. It has been used in several gooseberry breeding programs, including at the Morden Research Station. ‘Dakota Dwarf’ is a particularly compact and vigorous selection of it that you may find in the nursery trade. It is a very easy species to propagate from cuttings, and I like it not only for its shape, but also because it is one of the very first shrubs to leaf out in spring. It is usually in full leaf already when other shrubs are only just starting to think about getting leaves. Once rooted, I will plant them in a garden where deer are a problem and hopefully they will not get eaten. (The gooseberries won’t get eaten; if the deer get eaten I will not be upset about that.) They’ll be in the shelter of an immense boulder, and since they often grow in the clefts of boulders in the wild and on the cliff sides, I think they will look right at home. While I enjoy propagating some “challenging” plants, I’m also always quite happy for shrubs that are easy and accommodating.

I have several native plants germinating outside in seed trays in the garden. I gathered seeds from our native Oregon grape in fall (my friends at UBC assured me they were easy to germinate) and lo and behold, they are starting to come up! I also gathered seed from false hellebore (Veratrum), one of the native plants I most covet for a shade garden. I had never attempted to germinate it before, and the internet gave me the impression it would be difficult. Well, half a dozen of them are coming up with no trouble and I really didn’t make much of an effort. “Sow in fall and they will germinate in spring…” is usually my attitude with native plants and it usually works. So take that, internet authorities!

Would anybody like some vervain? While most gardeners are familiar with the bedding plants we call verbena, their perennials relatives (called vervain) seem to be quite unknown. Verbena hastata is commonly called blue vervain or swamp verbena. This is a very erect species growing 3-5 ft. tall and flowers from mid through late summer. It can be found throughout the eastern half of North America and even ranges into a good portion of Manitoba. It has very boring green foliage and clusters of tiny but very pretty blue-purple, violet or sometimes pink or white flowers. Although in the wild this species favors damp pastures, thickets, and wet meadows, under garden conditions it is much more forgiving. It can handle some drought once established and the seeds germinate very easily- a bit too easily, perhaps.

Blue vervain can become weedy but it tends to be rather short lived anyway so most gardeners don’t really mind if it shows up hither and yon. It can be very prone to powdery mildew, so be sure plants are not crowded and that they are getting good air circulation. As an added bonus, this species often develops excellent fall color. This is a nice plant for cutting and butterflies are absolutely mad about it. Although officially hardy only to zone 4, this species has often done very well in gardens in both zones 2 and 3 and I quite like it. The ancient Druids of Europe held that vervain was the most sacred of all flowers, and used their own native species on altars and for a variety of spells and incantations. Some of you out there reading this may have just such a need for a plant that is considered sacred and powerful.

Last year at the end of March, I did a presentation in Saskatchewan about plants in this family and my intent had been to grow a couple of flats of vervain and make them available for sale. Unfortunately, the seed did not even arrive until after the show was over so now I have waaay too much seed and I’m not sure what I should do with it all. I think I might sow half of it; some of it I will definitely use in a new garden project in Lethbridge that I just took on. Oh, how good it would look with the wands of Nicotiana sylvestris and something with arching, silvery leaves; perhaps artichokes or Scotch thistles. By the way I can’t grow Scotch thistles anymore because they are listed as a “noxious weed” here. I used to grow them in Sk. and loved them but I was also very, very meticulous about keeping them deadheaded so they never had the chance to become a nuisance. Perhaps it is my Scottish ancestry that brews in me a love of thistles but there is no reason a weed can’t still be beautiful. There are many gorgeous weeds in the world. There’s a lesson in that somewhere I’m sure.

I wish a very blessed Easter to all those who celebrate it and I will write more soon…

Today has been an overly busy, somewhat exciting, kind of weird, sort of eventful day and I’m really ready to make a cup of tea and go to bed. Actually, for the first time in about six hundred years, I really want a glass of wine. However, if I do that, I would have to actually go out and purchase wine because there certainly isn’t any here…I have some chai tea and a box of Miracle-Gro. That is literally the sum total of my beverage options.

Tomorrow I am interviewing a student who I will hopefully hire to look after plants and seedlings for me while I have to be away at the end of April and for an entire week in May. Dear God let him be competent and trustworthy. I don’t want to freak him out but if I come home to dead plants I have no means of paying my bills or buying groceries or putting fuel in my truck. Two people have said to me this week “it must be sooo nice to have a greenhouse to just play in…” and as much as I do have a good time in there, I also have to explain to people (more frequently than I would like to) that this is actually how I make a living. I am growing these plants for clients who will pay me for both my time and the product I am putting into their yards. If stuff doesn’t get water and it dies, it puts me in a precarious position. So I have to impress on him the importance of what I am hiring him for but without scaring him off. Perhaps I will just promise to amply reward him if all is well when I return, but then casually throw in that if he kills one single plant while I’m away I shall box him about the face and ears most aggressively. I think it was in ‘The Tempest’ where Shakespeare threatens “hence I shall rend thee to an oak, till thou hast howled away 12 winters…” That would be a suitable threat for a grade 12 student, wouldn’t it?

In the meantime, speaking of my greenhouse, ever more fabulous things will be occurring this week. Many more things will be seeded. I am going to gamble and sow a row of malope seeds along the south side of the house first of all. I think they will absolutely succeed. I just love flowers. I really love them. I think about plants all day long. I am constantly trying to figure out what plants are doing, marveling at how they do it, and being completely astonished at their diversity and their colours and their ingenuity and their incredible designs. Who are these people who don’t see the world? Who are these people who think trees are merely a green background, or that a houseplant is merely décor? How gray and colourless and uninteresting their worlds must be. I will sow malope seeds- small but full of promise- in the warm earth and observe the alchemy of these tiny brown pebbles sending up shoots and leaves and flowers that shimmer like the robes of angels.

Malope (pronounced mal-ah-pee) is a superb annual in the mallow family and thus closely related to hibiscus and hollyhocks and Lavatera. It grows about 2-3 ft. tall and produces incredible, satiny flowers of an intense reddish pink or rose, rarely white. The blooms have a lustrous quality to them like the finest of Thai silks and a curious, star-shaped green window in the center. Rich in nectar, they draw flurries of bees and hummingbirds and bloom for months at a time. Native to the western half of the Mediterranean, malope has never achieved much in the way of popularity. This is likely because it is highly resentful of containers and disturbance and does not transplant readily. Seeds directly sown, however, germinate easily and flower with an enthusiasm that is unmatched by most other annuals. I grew it on the farm for many years, but I have rarely seen it in other gardens. I like growing things that are found only infrequently in the company of others.

Up in the greenhouse I will be sowing the glorious lion’s tail (Leonotis leonuris), which I have not grown for nearly 20 years. This is a spectacular evergreen shrub from South Africa that makes a terrific annual for those of us in colder climates, assuming it is given an early start indoors. I really should have sown it in the middle of March; I am going to see if I can get away with an April sowing. (I think I can.) Growing 3-7 ft. tall, this fast growing plant wants full sun and average, well drained soil. The tubular, brilliant orange flowers are arranged in whorls around the stems, and have a bit of a resemblance to Monarda. They appear until taken down by frost. They are much loved by hummingbirds and can also make dramatic large scale cutflowers. Give lion’s tail a spot where it will be protected from the wind. ‘Staircase’ is a somewhat more compact form of the species with even more intensely orange flowers. The last time that I grew this plant was 1999 and I was 18 years old. I know this because I pulled out some old garden journals last week. The seed came from Thompson & Morgan in the United States and it was the most brilliant thing in the garden that summer. My friend Marilyn Brown came out to our yard to take pictures of the garden and she was absolutely enthralled with this plant in particular. I promised I would grow some for her the following year, but the following year the seed was not available and life got in the way and I never grew it again. Marilyn passed away in 2006 after a brief battle with cancer and it bothers me that she never had the pleasure of growing this wonderful plant herself. I will be putting the lion’s tail in a client’s garden as a dramatic partner with ‘Ruby Eclipse’ sunflowers and ‘New Zealand Purple’ castor beans, which I will also start this week. My friend Kelly and I went on a seed purchasing binge in January and I am fairly sure that we are both lying awake at night thinking about just how good everything is going to turn out…

Speaking of Kelly, I’m also going to start some cactus for her. From seed. I have some hardy native cactus that were overwintered outside and are destined for her place (or her mother in law’s, I can’t remember) but we decided she should also have some Easter lily cactus. (Echinopsis spp.) There are over 120 species here (all native to South America) and they hybridize very freely. There are thus many cultivars and named forms in cultivation. They come in many different sizes, but are well known for having generally small and unassuming shapes, with flowers that seem really disproportionately large for the size of the plant. The flowers are trumpet-shaped like an Easter lily (hence the common name) and may be any number of colors. In some cases they are also fragrant. In the wild, Easter lily cactus will grow only in dry, sandy or gravelly soil often on hillsides or crevices in rocky slopes. Experiments at Kew have shown they benefit from a bit of lime in their soil, but water during their resting period will usually kill them. They are also very partial to cold night temperatures. Many species come from regions where they are subject to dense and heavy fog during their growing period, and some gardeners will actually mist them heavily rather than water them when they are actively growing. This seems to be a good technique. They can be readily grown from seed. Baby cactuses from seed are absolutely adorable, and usually do not even hint at what their adult forms will be like. From seed to flower is only about three years, and they are long lived and rewarding. Cactus produce some of the most awe-inspiring flowers in the entire plant kingdom and I really, truly cannot get enough of them. I just love flowers. Did I mention that already?