Spring tonic

When I was a child, one of my favourite fairy tales was Rapunzel. Beyond the tower, beyond the hair, beyond the young man climbing to rescue the sheltered girl from a possessive foster mother, I was intrigued with the plant which Rapunzel’s birth mother had craved while pregnant and was willing to give up her unborn child in order to have access to the patch in the witch’s garden. That plant was Allium tricoccum or ramps, a kind of wild garlic.

I’ve never seen it growing here but when I lived in Ireland many years ago, I used to pick it in the hedgerows on my walk from Eyrephort strand to Clifden. It kept fresh in a glass of water and I’d clip it to add to my daily meal of nettles and mussels. (I was trying to find my voice as a writer and was living on a small island off the Connemara coast. I had no money and foraged as much as I could.) It didn’t surprise me that a woman would crave the green tonic of that plant.

This time of year I crave watercress. For some years I used to gather it in several places around Pender Harbour. But the problem was, I was kind of suspicious about the conditions upsteam from where the cress grew — in one instance, a shallow lake favoured by beavers; in another, the community landfill. But our friends Joe and Solveigh grow it in a pool in their garden and the other night they sent us home with a bag of it. I love its peppery flavour, so bracing and so delicious. Every year I tell myself I need to work out a way to grow watercress here but every year it seems that I get swamped with other chores.

Tonight we had a fillet of local halibut to put on the barbeque and I put some of the watercress in a large bowl with about the same amount of a lovely mesclun I’m growing this year. I have several kinds — one with red mustard, two kinds of kale, and other spicy greens. This one, though, is more nutty: it contains arugula, a few other greens that are mildly flavoured, and little stalks of onion. I sliced about two cups of strawberries into the bowl — not local, not yet, but they were on sale in our local market and have good flavour, unlike the woody berries that we get in winter. And then I made a dressing, inspired by one in an old Bon Appetit magazine but altered enough that I think I claim it as my own. I roasted a head of garlic, brushed with a little olive oil. (I was baking bread today so had the oven on anyway.) Once it had cooled, I peeled the cloves and put them in the blender and pureed them. I added two tablespoons of honey (blueberry blossom honey from the North), two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar (from a bottle our friend Jeffrey made from his apples in Powell River), a squeeze of fresh lemon, two tablespoons of apple butter (made from apples bought in Spences Bridge in late August), and a tablespoon of Dijon mustard. Once that had been mixed well in the blender, I slowly added about 1/2 cup of olive oil. I used perhaps three tablespoons of this delicious emulsion on the salad, tossed it gently, and then scattered a small handful of hemp seeds on top.

The smoky fish, tangy greens, strawberries, earthy hemp seeds, dressing so deeply flavourful that I’m glad I made enough for several more salads: spring tonic!

Late May gift

A funny capricious day — first it rained (so we made a fire in the woodstove, prepared to be indoors all day), then the sun, then rain again. Clear now, and warm enough to tie up poppies, plant out the last of the squash seedlings into their box in the vegetable area where I have old windows over them for a few days yet.

But then this, on the upper deck:

It’s “Abraham Darby”, one of David Austin’s English roses, growing in a big pot. A little black spot on the leaves — it’s been a very damp spring! — but the bush is loaded with buds and they are as lovely as any rose I’ve ever seen. But then I say that about almost every rose I grow. The old moss roses, ruffled and clear pink, smelling the way roses used to. The gallicas, particularly the velvety purple “Tuscany Superb”, another David Austin called “Winchester Cathedral”, white with a flush of pink at the heart, and which smells like Johnson’s Baby Lotion. Deep red “Dark Lady” (yet another David Austin cultivar), soft pink “Heritage” . . . There’s almost nothing as nice as a bowl of roses on the dining table, ruffled and full-blown, losing their petals gracefully.

A longer walk, for Katka

Every year we take the same pictures of the same things — the wisterias, the first rose. But this morning’s walk is for Katka, who may be in Velky Osek when she reads this, or Brno: in both places I can imagine her walking among chestnuts and oaks or in her own garden near the Elbe River.

Lying in bed with my coffee this morning, I saw that the first roses were in bloom! This rose is rootstock from something which never thrived so I let it go and it’s two stories high, dense with buds. The roses are like dog roses, single, and very light pink.

And wisteria which grows near it:

The deck where we eat our dinner:

And a little clump of lily of the valley at the foot of the stairs:

Three views of the patio leading to the front door:

And what you see when you get to the front door:

Just to the east of the patio and woodshed:

And a sage just coming into flower in the vegetable area:

Those peas again:

And a box of potatoes just in front of them:

I can never bear to weed out the volunteer columbines…

And here’s a view down the driveway where the crabapple brought to us by John’s mum almost thirty years ago is just finishing its bloom. Think of that tree as a bride, dressed in deep pink (her white sisters are further down the driveway), alive with bees. And then imagine a black bear sitting in the centre of the tree each fall, gorging on the scabby fruit…

Poignant Mountain

How mysteries are sometimes solved in strange and unexpected ways! When I was a child, my family lived on three different occasions in Matsqui, in the Fraser Valley, when my father was stationed at the radar base there. The housing for personnel and their families was in the shadow of Sumas Mountain and another mountain whose name I heard as Poinet. Mount Poinet. On one occasion my older brothers went on a hike up that mountain and got lost. My father had to go up with a flashlight to find them. I remember picking blueberries in lard tins on the lower slopes and finding an abandoned outhouse with squares of mouse-nibbled newspaper on a nail beside the oval hole which I couldn’t imagine anyone ever actually sitting on.

But the mountain didn’t show up on any map — or at least any that I looked at. And it wasn’t until yesterday, looking online for some information about the radar base for something I’m writing about my father, that I came across this photograph

and the note that it was the home of Albin Poignant, postmaster at Ridgedale. Suddenly I remembered the Ridgedale Store and even this house itself because the row of small houses where we lived is just to the far left of the photograph, on the other side of the farm you can see (which I think belonged to the Sward family).  So it was Poignant Mountain and a creek nearby is Poignant Creek.

Mendel’s peas in bloom

The peas I brought back from the Mendel Museum in Brno are blooming! At times like this I wish I had a better grasp of genetics. I am writing about my grandmother (from Horni Lomna) and my mother (who never knew her birth parents) and trying to figure out some of the mysteries of families. So planting these peas seemed like a good way to think about origins, inherited traits, and other considerations of who we are, and why. How much of our personality and physiology comes from our families and how much we shape our own selves.

Here are the peas, the seeds of which were smooth:

White flowers! I have this little chart on my desk and know what to expect now…

I have hazel eyes and John’s are hazel too; this means we’re both hybrid brown, I think. We have three children, one with hazel eyes and two with blue eyes. My father’s eyes were green — also hybrid brown — and my mother’s were (I think) true brown. John’s mum’s eyes are hazel and his father’s were blue-grey.  I have three brothers, all with either hybrid or true brown eyes.  I wish I knew how to make sense of this.


Yesterday we took our friends Jeffrey and Shana to Francis Point. On the way there, I was keeping an eye out for oyster mushrooms but didn’t see any. We sat out on the point watching a prawn boat haul in traps as an eagle hovered around, waiting for the heads. Seals kept their watchful distance. Walking back to the car, I suddenly saw two dead alder trees completely covered in mushrooms! I’d looked at those very trees earlier but the light hadn’t been right, I guess. We had bags in the car and filled two of them — IGA shopping bags! — with the nicest ones and left the mature ones there. There are also many tiny guys coming along which we’ll go for next week (unless someone else gets there first…).

So this morning John has spread out most of the mushrooms to sort and  clean


and will cook them in a little butter and olive oil for the freezer.

The rest we’ll eat fresh over the next few days. And in the time it’s taken me to write these few sentences, the house has filled with the delicious smell of oyster mushrooms in Sicilian olive oil…


Some mornings feel like accumulations of every morning I’ve known. The fire in the woodstove smelling of cedar, the perfection of the first cup of coffee, the cool air as I walk out to water new seedlings. Last night I heard an owl very near the house and I hoped it wasn’t feasting on the nestlings by my study window. This morning the robin parents are busy taking worms back to the nest so that’s a relief. Birds, flowers, the sight of the sun coming over Mount Hallowell about twenty minutes ago, beginning the long journey to the mountains we can see in the west, beyond Texada Island, where it slides into darkness later and later each evening, an accumulation of every sunrise, every dusk.

When I went out to begin the watering, I looked up to see the wisteria, a pale cloud above the patio. It blooms twice. The first, just happening, is silvery — the flowers open first, a haze of them, and then the new leaves. The second flowering is later, in July, and the blossoms are hidden among the lush deep green leaves so that we barely see them, though the scent of them in early morning or late evening is delicious. We have three wisterias, two of them brought by John’s mum many years ago as rooted offshoots from hers in her Nanaimo garden (and I think she brought the original cutting from John’s grandmother’s garden in Suffolk). Our third wisteria is one I layered from this one and it grows over the western deck, filling in a trellis also claimed by grapevine. It’s lovely to sit there in a green shade on summer evenings. I have a new string of chili pepper lights to loop through the stems…

And the lilacs! Most of ours come from an old plant in my parents’ garden in Royal Oak. It was a common lilac, very hardy, and each year they’d dig away the little shoots that came up around the main trunk. It occurred to me that I should take them back with me and so now I have both a sense of continuity when they bloom, and also loss.

And here’s sweet woodruff by the woodshed

and a pot of tulips like small planets in their pot in a corner of the deck.

Portraits of pollinators

Today I was driving back from Sechelt and was lucky enough to hear some people discussing bees on the CBC noon show, Almanac. (I confess I’m a huge Mark Forsythe fan…) I was surprised to hear a man list the various pollinators in our coastal gardens. Of course I knew about bees in their various incarnations. We see honey bees here, and bumble bees, and mason bees, and the strange wedge-shaped bee flies. And of course hummingbirds and other familiars. But I never knew that lizards are considered pollinators. Or ants.

When I arrived home, I went out to work in the garden and was newly aware of activity in every blossom. I took some photographs of various insects (and a lizard), the ones that caught my eye, or those who were still enough to let me take their portraits. I’d put the camera away when I noticed a wasp working a huckleberry bush, moving from one bell to the next in a methodical way that made me think of wasps a little differently. So imagine it among these others, radiantly striped, in the pink urns of a Vaccinium parvifolium. And as for the lizard, well, I’m not sure how to imagine it as a pollinator. Every time I see them, they’re staring sternly from a crevice in the woodpile  (old plywood in this case), or else basking in sunlight on a rock outcropping. But there are native sedums on the rocks, and little fringes of twinflower above them…

A short walk around the garden

Here is the new box that John made from old decking and slabs of cedar from the tree that concealed the pumpkin seeds in “Thuja plicata: Nest Boxes”. The aluminum window comes from my parents’ home in Royal Oak and the box is lined with chicken wire against the predations of the two deer sisters that we see every week or so. Right now there are peppers in the box and shortly I’ll put some cucumber seedlings against the back where they can clamber up the chicken wire. And as I write this, John is in the process of setting another of the boxes in place.

And here’s the path down the middle of the vegetable garden.

This is the box where a pair of chestnut-backed chickadees are nesting. We’ve watched them over the past few days plucking moss and dry grass for their nest and sometimes when I’m in the garden, I see one of them peering out the opening to see if it’s safe to fly out.

This morning I made two bean teepees for the pole beans which are hardening off on the upper deck. (I begin them in flats in the sunroom because otherwise birds pluck the newly sprouted seeds out of the ground and nip off the sweet stems.) I have edamame beans to plant out too but they’re bushier and will just have individual sticks to support them.

This is a dwarf apple tree in lovely bloom and Mendel’s peas climbing up their wire.

Two kinds of garlic — one from Galiano Island and Red Russian from Grand Forks.

And here’s the female robin on her nest. The eggs haven’t hatched yet and she’s there pretty much all the time with the male bringing her food.

This is where they bathe — and just after I looked at the photograph on my computer, I ran out to put fresh water in the bird bath.


Coming back from a couple of days in Vancouver, I was delighted to see the sky clear as the ferry pulled into Langdale Terminal. We drove up the coast in sunlight and as soon as we got home, I put on old jeans and my rubber boots and went out to the garden. Because it’s been so damp, the slugs have had a field day. I keep picking them off the little broccoli plants and I’m using eggshells and ferric sodium to try to keep them away from the little spinach and chard seedlings. I’ve been reading David George Gordon’s The Secret World of Slugs and Snails and am not entirely happy to be at war with such fascinating creatures but I’ve made a pact with them: stay out of the vegetable garden and I’ll leave you to live your lives in peace. They’re breaking the pact, not me.

In the meantime, I’ve planted lots of greens in planters and tubs on the decks. This has worked well in past years. It’s so easy to open the sliding doors from the kitchen to the big west-facing deck and gather enough salad for dinner. The mesclun mixtures are lovely. I’ve been picking mizuna and chervil, small leaves of kale (and cooking the larger leaves), and other spicy greens. Today I planted some Italian seeds I bought on Commercial Drive the other day. These are Emanuele Larosa Sementi and I’ve had good results from them in the past. Catalogna lettuces, two kinds of arugula (one of them Rucola selvatica and the other a wild Roman variety), and something called herba stella or buckshorn plantain which sounds delicious. I was curious to know more about it and discovered that it’s more properly Plantago coronopus, a weed to many, but then so are many of the cresses, lamb’s quarters, and other additions to the salad bowl which give plain lettuces a run for their money.