Hellebores as cut flowers

I love hellebores. There are few other plants that are as happy in shade, bloom profusely for months and are completely avoided by deer. It’s always such a joy to see them popping out of the ground in late winter just at that moment when the garden looks dreary and there's nothing to pick for the house. But until recently I've always found them rather disappointing as a cut flower.

Conventional wisdom has it that if you want to use hellebores as cut flowers you have to leave them until the flower is mature. That is, wait until the sepals (the colourful parts we might assume to be the petals) harden, the stamens start to shed, and the seed pod starts to develop. If you don't, they will simply sulk and wilt.

All very well, but at this stage many hellebores - particularly the whites - start to look decidedly grubby: what begins as pristine white matures into a rather mucky green.

Fortunately, there is a way to condition the immature flowers to give them a vase life of at least a week, so for those of you who, like me, were unaware of this simple trick, this is what to do.

• First clean the bottom of the stem - the part before it branches - of all leaves and side shoots.

•Then take a sharp craft knife and slit the stem that you have cleaned very lightly. You don't want to slice it in half, just go in a millimeter or two and that's plenty. And you don't need to go all the way up to where it branches. Here the arrows show how far I slit the stem with three different flowers. They all worked beautifully.

Arrows show how far the stems have been slit

• Finally cut the base of the stem at an angle and place in clean cool water, ensuring all of the stem that is slit is submerged.

I even found that a stem full of buds would last well, and that the buds would continue to grow and open, although not becoming as large a flower as they would have done if left in the ground.

Closed bud on left, bud after three days on right

You can also use this method on very short stems and for those varieties that hang their heads, this is a particular advantage. Rather than leaving them in the garden and having to scramble down on your knees to peer up into the flower - something particularly unappealing on a cold and damp February day - you can float them head up in a dish with some simple greenery.

Spotlight on Amaryllis

I’m not a big fan of most of the flowers that get trotted out over the holiday season. I usually buy a white poinsettia and then forget to water it, and I’ve bought and killed more Christmas cactus than I care to remember. I'm in complete awe of those who manage to keep one going for years while mine drop their buds and die within days. The problem is partly that I am generally hopeless with house plants, and partly that once Christmas is over and seed sowing season begins I lose interest and don't make the effort.

The exception is the amaryllis, or Hippeastrum as it is more correctly known. Just to clarify, Amaryllis is native to South Africa, and includes only two species: Amaryllis belladonna ('naked ladies') and Amaryllis paradisicola.  The bulbs we buy at Christmas as house plants are actually from the genus Hippeastrum, native to Central and South America. But everyone calls them amaryllis, and so will I.

Amaryllis belladonna flowers
A true amaryllis: Amaryllis belladonna, Bidgee, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Even I can keep amaryllis alive, and there are so many interesting forms and colours from which to choose. Granted they are not the most elegant of plants in growth, but they do give the kids a bit of a giggle, and once they do flower, they are quite spectacular.

'Mont Blanc'

Growing amaryllis

You can grow just one amaryllis but the more you put in the pot the better the show will be - all of the same variety of course. I aim for three in a pot. Each large bulb should give you three to four flowering stems in succession, and in a cool room each bloom should last for weeks. Choose a pot that is no more than 3-5cm wider than the diameter of the bulbs and plant them very close but not touching. Amaryllis like to be pot bound. When they bloom they are top heavy, so choose a solid and heavy pot. Pack potting compost around the bulb with the top third of the bulb remaining above the surface of the soil.

Keep in a cool bright location (direct sunlight not needed) and water very sparingly until you see about 5cm of new growth. Then water regularly and turn the pot periodically to help the stalk remain straight. Deadhead the flowers as they wither and once all the flowers on a stem are gone, cut the stem back to the base, but leave the leaves alone.

I have a particular liking for the Cybister Amaryllis, with their long, ribbon-like petals. This is the lovely 'Sweet Lillian'

Saving Amaryllis

In Mediterranean climates you can plant the bulbs in the garden once they have finished, but for most of us, saving the bulb for next year is a bit more complicated. (Having said that, some claim they just put the bulb aside and it re-blooms next January. Easy Peasy.) But if, like me, you don't have that golden touch with house plants but you want to try, then this approach, recommended by Arthur Parkinson in his wonderful book The Flower Yard, is probably the best.

Once flowering is over and all flowering stems removed, keep the amaryllis in a warm sunny place for the spring, well watered and fed with seaweed tonic. Let them dry out in mid-summer and the leaves will wither and the bulbs will be reinvigorated and go dormant. Leave them in their pot in a cool dark place and bring out and begin watering again at the start of winter.

'Happy Garden' has smaller flowers than most amaryllis, but it produces far more of them.

Amaryllis as a cut flower

Amaryllis make great cut flowers, and will last just as long in the vase as they do growing in a pot. But because they have hollow stems and heavy heads, sometimes the stems crack or the ends curl up. So whether you are cutting from your own bulbs, or buying them ready cut from a florist, there are a few steps you need to take to treat them.

Take a thin stick or bamboo cane and put it up the hollow stem - you need one that will reach right to the top, just under the flower. Next put a little cotton wool up the stem to hold the stick in place.

Take a rubber band and put it around the stem, about 1/2 inch up. If the layers of the stem do start to curl in the water, they will go no further than that band.

Now you've got air in the stem and that will impede the take up of water, so take a needle and just under the flower head and just above the cotton wool, pierce the stem through. The amaryllis is now ready to go.

Pansy ring bowl

My latest toy - an early Christmas present to myself - is a pansy ring bowl. These flower holders have a round tubular shape and are specifically designed to display small flowers that have short stems, but more particularly to display the heads of flowers that tend to droop on their stems to their greatest advantage.

It will be perfect for double snowdrops, Galanthus nivalus 'Flore pleno', for example, which have the most beautiful intricate green and white markings, markings that are normally difficult to see unless you stick your head under the flower and look up.

I've been unable to find out very much about these pansy rings, but they seem to have been very popular in the 1950s and so some readers may recall their mothers or grandmothers using one. There are a number available on Etsy and Ebay - not all that difficult to find - and the most commonly available are vintage rings from Goebel Porcelain in Germany.

There's a distinct lack of interesting pansies in the garden centres at the moment, as every corner is still given over to trees, wreaths and the like, but I managed to get just enough violas from my garden to try it out and I thought it looked rather pretty.

Displaying the heads of violas to advantage

But, after all, it's Christmas, and so I thought I should see how well it worked to create a small table wreath. A little bit of cedar from the hedge, some choisya (wishing I had some viburnum in flower), gypsophila and a few holly berries and it started to look a bit more seasonal.

You could, if you wanted, put a candle in the middle, but I went with some fairy lights instead.

The battery pack of the fairy lights was a touch obtrusive so I placed the ring on a piece of cloth and put the batteries underneath.

Alternatively, you could place a small shallow bowl of water on top of the battery pack (mine is indoor/outdoor and waterproof) and place a couple of poinsettia bracts in it.

Does anyone else have a pansy ring bowl and know anything more about them?

Of posies, nosegays, and tussie-mussies

It’s the end of November and there’s next to nothing to pick except the increasingly straggly bright red schizostylis seen in nearly every Victoria garden around this time. To feed my flower arranging addiction, it’s time to make posies. I did this last winter, using such things as supermarket potted roses, house plants and violas from the garden centre, and it helped satisfy the craving until spring bulbs began to bloom.

Unfortunately, this year I didn’t plan very well. I did buy two potted roses at the supermarket last month, and this was lucky, because now the shelves are laden with amaryllis, cyclamen and poinsettias, some in unnatural lurid shades and covered in bling. There is little to inspire someone bent on posies. And the garden centres are further conspiring to thwart my plans by cramming every inch of space with fir trees, overpriced wreaths, and bundles of eucalyptus, holly and the like. What can they be thinking?  I went looking for some dainty pastel violas and all I found were a few gaudy pansies and primulas.

Posy holders

My posy holder

I’m a bit disappointed because I’ve just bought a posy holder and wanted to find some appropriately delicate flowers to go with it.  You may have seen these posy holders in antique shops or on ebay, Etsy and the like.  They’ve become an immensely popular type of Victoriana recently and can cost thousands. Have a look, for example, at some the beauties on offer from Cynthia Findlay in Toronto. In the UK, look at Ruby Lane: there’s a gorgeous sterling silver and turquoise posy holder currently on sale for 2,085 GBP. I don't suppose there's much point in putting this on my Christmas list ...

This gorgeous posy holder is on sale at the time of writing for 2,085 GBP at Ruby Lane Antiques

Victorian posy holders are typically around 3-6 inches long and in a trumpet shape. The stems of flowers are placed down the narrow end, with a little moistened moss to keep them fresh, and the blooms fill the opening. The posy is then held in place by a pin on a chain. There is usually a ring attached to the handle, allowing the posy holder to be worn on the finger. Others, like the example from Ruby Lane above, have three hinged ‘legs’ which function as a tripod and allow the holder to be placed on a table. And some even have little mirrors on them.

Posy holder with mirror

Collector Irene Deitsch believes these were 'flirting mirrors', allowing a young woman to see someone behind her. (Less romantically, one could imagine a practical young lady finding it most useful for surreptitiously checking her teeth for stray spinach.)

Should you ever consider buying an antique posy holder, caveat emptor: there are a lot of copies out there. Do check out this article by Mark Chervenka, which tells you how to distinguish the antique from the fake.

My recently purchased posy holder, I must add, is no glamorous antique. It’s just a cheap reproduction from Etsy which the seller described as ‘vintage’ and from the 1940s. But it is a good reproduction, and I mainly wanted to get a look at how one worked so I’m very pleased with it. I even managed to get just enough flowers to try it out.

My posy holder with a mini rose, some daphne, scented leaf geranium, violas scrounged from a neighbour, and wax flower from the florist

Another posy in holder, here looking disturbingly like something a gardener might use to repel vampires

And if you were wondering how that pin could possibly hold the posy in place, well, I was sceptical, but, as they say, the proof is in the pudding (rather a wobbly pudding I'm afraid as I don't find them easy to balance on the finger):

Nosegays and posies: a little history

The carrying of sweet smelling nosegays began as a way of protecting against infection. 'Miasma' theory, as it’s called, held that diseases are produced by unhealthy or polluted vapours rising from the ground or from decomposed material, and it was thought that pungent perfumes could somehow neutralise these sources of infection. Hence the idea of holding some fragrant herbs and flowers up to the nose.

In a particularly quirky version of this, the beak masks worn by plague doctors at the time of the Black Death had a fragrant compound of herbs, spices and honey enclosed within the beak which was supposed to cleanse the air before it reached the nostrils and lungs.

That stick the doctor holds, by the way, is for poking the sick to keep them at arm's distance, something which probably helped more than the fragrant herbs.

Posies and poetry

The word posy is often thought to be an abbreviated form of 'poesy' or poetry, and possibly originated as the verses presented with a nosegay, eventually becoming applied to the flowers themselves. Some have even suggested that the flowers themselves constituted a kind of poem, couched in the language of flowers. Nosegay and posy became quite interchangeable. Both could be used to refer collections of poems or to little bunches of flowers. To give one example of the old connections between flowers and poetry, the first secular collection of poems by a woman printed in English is Isabella Whitney's A sweet nosgay, or pleasant posye contayning a hundred and ten phylosophicall flowers &c. (1573). There's something to spice up dinner party conversation ...

Posies as fashion accessories

As 'miasma' theory began to give way to the germ theory of infection in the nineteenth century, the nosegay became less a protective device than a fashion accessory, and fashionable ladies, including the young queen Victoria, would be seen holding what were now increasingly called posies.

The young Victoria at the opera, holding a posy in a posy holder.
Edmund Thomas Parris, 'Portrait of Queen Victoria' Wikigallery.

And the interest in posy holders was spread throughout the western world, not just in Victorian England; America took up the trend with particular enthusiasm.

A collage of images from the American Godey's Lady's Magazine which show posies held by a variety of women, and by a young girl. The 'corsage' referred to in the top left image is the jacket the girl is wearing, not the flowers.

Floral misinformation

If you've looked at some of the links I've added in this post, you may have noticed that these holders are usually referred to not as posy holders but as tussie-mussies, a much more intriguing term, and one we are constantly assured the Victorians used to describe both the holders and the flowers put in them. You'll find this repeated all over the internet, by everyone from antique dealers to collectors, from Etsy sellers to bloggers. If I can put my former hat of university professor with a specialism in Victorian literature back on for a moment, let me assure you this is complete tosh.

What's all this about tussie-mussies?

The term used to describe a sweet smelling nosegay of herbs and flowers in Middle English was tusse-mose or tusmose which in Modern English became tuzzy-muzzy. And this was indeed another term for a nosegay until the early seventeenth century.

But as historical lexicographer Jonathan Green has shown, by 1642 the term tuzzy-muzzy had become slang for the vagina. This is confirmed also by Francis Grose in his 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, where he defines tuzzy-muzzy as 'the monosyllable', a euphemism of the time for another less salubrious word for the vagina.

This is what tuzzy-muzzy/tussie-mussie meant in the nineteenth century. One of the few published references we have to the term during this period is the bawdy songbook, 'The Tuzzy-Muzzy Songster', from the most notorious Victorian publisher of pornography, William Dugdale. I leave the contents to your imagination.

A search in the British Newspaper Archive brings up no matches at all for the nineteenth century; the term begins to appear in these archives - but only sporadically - in the early twentieth century, in reports of flower shows or weddings and by people clearly unaware of its former bawdy overtones. And it is only in the last thirty or so years that the term tussie-mussie has made such a widespread comeback. Refashioned and all nicely cleaned up, it is now claimed to be a Victorian term for posy.

Why this has occurred I could not guess: catchier and more intriguing than posy holder perhaps? Better for marketing maybe? The one thing I can say with confidence is that despite numerous claims to the contrary, tussie-mussie/tuzzy-muzzy was not in general use as a term for a posy in the nineteenth century.

The Victorians were by no means the laughable prudes they later came to be defined as in the popular imagination. (Forget about 'Lie back and think of England': if you still believe in those old chestnuts have a look at some of Victoria's love letters to Albert). Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely they would have talked of tussie-mussies in general conversation when referring to a posy or its holder. Indeed, one can only imagine how a time-travelling Victorian reader might snicker to read in a twentieth-century newspaper that 'Our Queen Elizabeth held a tussie-mussie in Westminster Abbey at her Coronation’ (Stapleford & Sandiacre News, 9 April 1981, 6).

Let's go back to posy, shall we?

Thanks to Susan Hamilton, Professor Emeritus, University of Alberta, and to those members of the list-serv on the Victoria Research web who so generously responded to a query about the tussie-mussie.

Canadian flower farmers II

Main image: Some of the flowers available from Special Effects Flower Farm.

Images reproduced from the respective websites with permission and remain copyright of the owner.

Carrying on from my previous post about Canadian flower farmers who also supply bulbs, tubers, seeds and plants to the home gardener, here are three more I would encourage you to check out: two in British Columbia and one in Manitoba.

Special Effects Flower Farm, Vancouver Island, BC

Special Effects Flower Farm with some of the speciality delphiniums in the foreground

Liz Dick is the owner of Special Effects Flower Farm in Shawnigan Lake on Vancouver Island. The farm grows over 150 varieties of dahlias, many of which will be available Canada wide as tubers for pre-ordering in mid-January. I should say that Liz's dahlias are very popular on the island, and they sell out quickly, so you need to be ready to move fast when spring orders open.

Some of Special Effects Farm's popular dahlias: 'Salmon Runner' (left) 'Labyrinth' (top right) and 'Shiloh Noelle' (bottom right)

Liz began to create her farm in 2018 with the specific idea of growing flowers that were different from those available in garden centres. And so one of the things that sets Special Effects apart from most other flower farms is that Liz grows a number of speciality flowers which the home gardener can acquire as starter plants. There are, for example, delphiniums that have been bred in Ecuador, Scotland, and New Zealand available as starts in four inch pots. You can see some of the ones that were on offer last year here.

Some of the delphiniums grown at Special Effects: 'Pagan Purples' (left) Paramo 'Celeste' (top right) and 'Double Innocence' (below right)

I'm a great fan of the New Zealand (formerly Dowdeswell) New Millennium delphiniums: 'Pagan Purples', 'Morning Lights' and 'Double Innocence', all performed beautifully in my Victoria garden this year. They flowered far longer than any other delphinium I've ever grown and stood up exceptionally well to the weather. This year I have my eye on 'Cinderella', another patented variety out of New Zealand. Generally considered one of the loveliest and most sought after delphinium cultivars, 'Cinderella' won the Gardeners' World 'Best New Plant' for 2019. It's compact for a delphinium, at about 4 foot, with sturdy stems and very pretty pale pink flowers with a white eye. It's apparently great for cutting too.

The highly sought after 'Cinderella'

Of course, there's also Paramo 'Celeste', a delicious looking pale blue with white eye, and the Highlander and Guardian series also look interesting. These have a compact habit with sturdy stems and rarely need staking.

This is not just the place for delphiniums and dahlias, of course. Check out the spring sale to see what will be on offer for 2023. Amongst other things, Liz is hoping to offer tree peonies this spring. The sale will be opening for pre-orders in mid January.

Lily Stone Gardens, Rosenort, Manitoba

Kelly Tellier, owner of Lily Stone Gardens

Kelly Tellier is the owner of Lily Stone Gardens, a year-round floral design shop and seasonal cut flower farm. They sell flowers at her own shop and through various florists in Winnipeg and through rural Manitoba. They also have a U-cut garden during the summer months, sell plants from their greenhouse for local pick up, and operate a shop and cafe. Recently they've increasingly specialised in wedding work, and have a fabulous wedding venue on their flower farm. I can't imagine a more beautiful place to get married, and their bouquets are just exquisite.

Their online shop sells a selection of flower seeds which, in preparation for the introduction of their 2023 seed line, are on sale as I write at great prices. And they have recently restocked their ranunculus tubers. Check what they have under corms, here. I ordered some of the Amandine series that I'd been searching for, including 'Porcelaine', 'Purple Jean' and 'Chamallow'.

Some of the ranunculus sold as tubers at Lily Stone Gardens

Being based in Winnipeg, Kelly knows all about growing in adverse conditions, so for those of you also gardening in zone 3, check out her advice about planting ranunculus. And if you're looking for Christmas presents, I noticed there are some pretty things available in the online shop. I was particularly taken with the 3-piece clay table vase set, but my husband claims my vase collection threatens to take over the house so I restrained myself.

Five Acres Flower Farm, Abbotsford, British Columbia

Amanda McAllister of Five Acres Flower Farm

Amanda McAllister and her husband Ryan run this small-scale family farm in the beautiful setting of the Fraser valley in British Columbia. They specialise in sustainably grown cut flowers, have a flower stand and run a variety of workshops during the summer and autumn. Some of these workshops look like great fun. You can see an example in the video below.

The farm also sells a selection of unique tulips, heirloom narcissus bulbs and peony roots to Canadian home gardeners in the autumn.

Left: the speciality narcissus bulbs, a mix of ruffled and double fragrant narcissus in gorgeous colours. Right: the speciality tulips bulbs, a mix of fragrant double peony and parrot tulips.

I purchased the speciality narcissus mix, and given that I almost never purchase a mix of anything, this gives a good idea of just how tempting they are. And I splurged on fifty of them. You'll be beginning to understand why I need so many vases...

The autumn shop is now closed, but starting in January, Five Acres Farm offers a selection of dahlias, some which are very hard to find elsewhere. Last year this included limited quantities of the much sought after collarette 'Appleblossom'. I've wanted to get my hands on one of these ever since I saw it in Floret Farm's Discovering Dahlias, so I'll be hoping it will be offered again next spring.

Christmas bauble vases

Try these unusual vases to make small Christmas arrangements for your mantelpiece. You'll need to find mid-sized Christmas baubles that have removable caps and a decent sized opening.

Choose baubles with good sized openings

The first step is to remove the cap, discard the wire hanger and then slightly flatten the cap itself, so that it still curves up a little. Put it on the bottom of the bauble to make sure you have the curve right.

Next put some glue (I used something called Gorilla glue) on the bottom of the bauble and on the cap. Try and get a little glue on each of the flaps.

Now press the bottom of the bauble into the cap and hold it together until the glue sets. If necessary, push up the flaps so they have contact with the bauble. Try and avoid getting it on your fingers (I never manage that).

Once it is dry, add some water, which helps further stabilize the bauble vase, and then your foliage and flowers.

Put them out of reach of little fingers, paws and wagging tails.

Thoughts on flowers, memory and my father's garden

Anemones are made of this

I imagine nearly everyone has a trigger plant, the sight or smell of which can suddenly transport you to another time and place. For me, as I've mentioned before, it is primarily the anemone, because I associate it with my great-aunt Olive who, when I was at boarding school in Wales, regularly used to take me out to lunch at a swish hotel, a treat invariably followed by a trip to a local florist. Here she would sniffily guide me past the ‘vulgar’ gladioli and the ‘oh-so-common’ carnations to the silver bucket packed with bunches of anemones, the buds just beginning to unfurl and hint at the vibrant jewel-toned flowers within.

As anyone knows who reads this blog, I too can now be sniffy about gladioli and carnations. And I grow a lot of anemones in my garden. Even though the ones I now grow are quite different from those simple bright De Caens I remember so well, they still invariably make me happy every time I pick a bunch for the vase.

I’ve asked a lot of people what their trigger plants might be, and I’ve been surprised how often the same flowers recur. Many are simple flowers associated with childhood: daisies that were made into chains and bracelets, for example, or primroses from the hedgerows or bluebells picked in the woods.

I have, however, noticed something of a cultural difference. Those kinds of flowers - the flowers of childhood picked in hedgerows and woods - were mentioned most frequently by British friends, or at least friends with British backgrounds. Here in Canada, I find people mentioning cultivated flowers more often than wild: like peonies, dahlias and even gladioli. Gladioli? Nostalgic? Could it be? Of course - because while all they remind me of is Dame Edna, for others they recall the gardens of parents or grandparents and stir memories of childhood. There was even something of a regional difference in Canadian responses which I found rather intriguing. Albertans frequently mentioned lilacs, for example, while those from Winnipeg often recalled hollyhocks growing tall against back lane fences.

The trigger flower is usually associated with someone much loved in the past. One person, for example, recalled the dark purple pansies she used to pick for her mother. She still has the tiny vase that her mother used to put them in, just the size for a child's handful of flowers. Interestingly, it was the velvety petals, the feel of the flowers, that this woman remembered above all.

Fragrance and memory

 ‘No other of the five senses is more subtle in its suggestions than the sense of smell or more unmistakably reminiscent of a time and state in which one was something else and possibly something better.'

Louise Beebe Wilder, The Fragrant Path (1932)

More frequently mentioned are fragrant flowers, especially lilac, lily of the valley and the sweet pea, and apparently for good reason.

Fragrant sweet peas: top of the memory trigger list

What Wilder instinctively knew has now been scientifically proven: odours are more effective in triggering memories than any other sensory stimuli because of the direct connections the olefactory nerves have with those parts of the brain involved in generating emotion and memory. Perhaps that original Proustian moment was produced less by the taste of the madeleine and more by the scent of the lime blossom tea in which it was dipped.

Emotional responses to gardens

Our emotional responses to a plant or a garden or a greater landscape are surely just as important as our aesthetic responses – if, indeed, they can be separated. Thomas Rainer, writing in a round table discussion of 'Memory and Plants' suggests that understanding our emotional connection to plants and landscapes ‘holds tremendous potential for all who design or garden, pushing design past endless formalistic concerns to explore landscaping and gardening as a dynamic art form, and showing how to create emotional experiences within the garden or landscape.'

My father's garden

In a small way, I think this is precisely what my father attempted when he made his beautiful small garden in the Canadian Rockies, partly prompted by my mother developing Alzheimer's. As her life became increasingly circumscribed, he wanted to create somewhere beautiful, comforting and calming where my mother could sit. You could say the garden was an exercise in nostalgia, but it was far more than this. My father was from Lancashire, my mother from Cumbria, and the garden was perhaps partly a response to her repeated desire: ‘I want to go home’. Where she thought ‘home’ was, we never knew, but it was a phrase that appeared long before she eventually had to be moved to long-term care.

My father's garden with its prized fishpond made using local slate

If 'home' was some vaguely remembered past, her childhood, a time when she felt secure, then my father tried to recreate this for her. It was an English garden complete with roses, clematis, sweet peas, columbines, delphiniums, peonies, the white daisies she loved, and more, all centered around a pond complete with goldfish (a far grander affair than the fishpond of my mother’s childhood home, which I remember well for the proliferation of poor frogs that I liked to catch and forcibly install in my doll's house.)

Scenes from my father's garden

Imagine creating an English cottage garden in the heart of the Canadian Rockies, where the last frost could come as late as June and the first as early as September. You’d think it wouldn’t be practical, but it worked.

Not, unfortunately, for my mother: in the end, my mother demonstrated little interest in the garden. But it did become an important part of my father's life. After having to retire and give up the work through which he'd defined himself for so long, the garden gradually filled at least part of the gap that had been left. It became part of the story of who he was.

This was not simply a sentimental exercise in nostalgia, because he made it say something about the land of which it was a part and of which he had come to feel so strongly a part. You could never forget the dark looming Rockies all around it, so different from the green hills of ‘home’. It was and wasn't an English garden. The fishpond was made with local slate. And my father, long before they became a trend, became quite obsessed with grasses, which he would surreptitiously dig up from wild areas around Quarry Lake, the site of an old strip mine that he had in large part been responsible for reclaiming and turning into a site of beauty.

My father's greenhouse

He installed a large greenhouse, with a massive table, chairs and sideboard from the local Victory shop. This was used not for growing plants, but for entertaining. I was shocked to find, when my own greenhouse went up in our Victoria garden, that I seemed to have been influenced by my father. Mine is filling up with plants instead of furniture, but there is somewhere to sit, a kettle in case he drops by and a place for his teapot on the shelf.

And mine ...

Whether we do it consciously or not, I believe that the gardens we create are a part of who we are, become part of the story we tell about ourselves. When my father died I took some columbine seeds from his garden. Last year, I germinated them, and this year I hope to see them flower in my garden here in Victoria.  Jenn, who helped him create his garden, took his edelweiss to remember my father by, and Kay, another good friend, took a small birdbath. And so it goes. There are traces of my father now in many gardens, and each gardener can through them remember the part he played in their own story.

Additional note: my father had local film maker Glen Crawford make a film of his garden in case anyone would like to dip in and see some more views. It is rather long (over 20 minutes) so dipping really is probably best.

Flower support: grids, Floraguppies, and dog toys.

This past September, I posted on alternatives to floral foam and demonstrated how to make a simple flower grid.

A simple flower grid made of sticks and resulting arrangement

Those grids are still holding up: a bit of a faff to make, but I think they are worth the effort, and I'm going to make some more interesting ones to support Christmas decorations soon.


At the time, I mentioned I was trying to get a new flower arranging tool that I had seen advertised: the Floraguppy, and I did manage to get a couple. The guppy is a really ingenious invention: basically a plastic ball with holes in it that you put in the top of your vase. It arrives in two pieces along with a couple of wooden sticks, like chopsticks, to hold it up in larger containers. You soak the two pieces in warm water for a minute, and then it easily fits together. I started by experimenting with a large glass vase, wondering if I would be bothered by being able to see the guppy through the glass.

Guppy in glass vase

I didn't need to use the sticks, as the guppy sat right on top on the vase rim. The criss-crossing stems keep everything from shifting and the arrangement easily stays in place. The guppy was, however, visible, and I didn't like that: in future I will always use an opaque vase.

Then I tried something a little more difficult, putting the guppy in quite a large diameter bowl, where I needed the wooden sticks to balance it on the rim and hold it steady while I arranged the flowers.

Guppy in bowl

This seemed to force me into a more compact and lower arrangement than I am used to making, and I did quite a bit of fiddling around before I felt happy with it. But the guppy worked beautifully. Then came the test. If I removed the sticks, would everything stay in place?

It all held together beautifully. You can lift the whole thing out to change the water or you can transfer it to a different vase. You could, particularly if you were doing a more natural arrangement, use interesting twigs for the supporting sticks, perhaps twigs with a bit of lichen on them, and just leave them in, making them part of the display.

But here's the catch. Since I got mine, the website has announced they are only available in the USA. This despite the fact the company is based in Vancouver. Sadly, as the very helpful Cebastian in Customer Service explained, it costs them far more to send a guppy across the street in Vancouver than it does to send it to the USA. Oh Canada. What is going on with your postal service? They hope to have them internationally available in the shops next year. Still, that is rather a disappointment.

So, in the meantime ... what about using a dog toy?

When I posted an arrangement using a guppy on Facebook recently, a friend commented that it reminded her of a dog toy: a lattice ball.

At the time I just laughed, but, well, it seemed at least worth testing it out. So, this morning I nipped out to Bosley's to pick one up: a puppy size Hol-ee Roller. Unfortunately they do come in rather bright colours and there was nothing transparent, like the guppy, available. Handy for a dog when playing fetch, I'm sure; not so good for the flower arranger.

The lurid green seemed about the best bet, and even with this I needed a lot of greenery to cover it up.

With the guppy, I needed only a couple of pieces of choisya, but to disguise the Hol-ee Roller I needed to strip half the bush. And it wasn't easy to criss-cross the stems into the ball so it wasn't as stable.

Nevertheless, to my surprise it worked. It wobbled in the bowl when I removed the sticks, but that didn't disrupt the arrangement at all.

But the guppy is far superior (and also cheaper) to the dog toy. Would I use a lattice ball again? I might if I didn't have my two guppies, but as it is, no. I think I know a little dog who might appreciate a lurid green Hol-ee Roller.

Canadian flower farmers I: Antonio Valente Flowers and Dahlia May

Main image: Dahlia May flower farm in Ontario

All images from the respective websites in this post are reproduced with permission and remain copyright of the owner.

If you're a gardener who likes cutting flowers for the house or for sharing with friends, you may have little interest in flower farms: after all, you grow your own, right? But in this two part posting on Canadian flower farmers, I want to show you exactly why, especially here in Canada, flower farmers are so important to us home gardeners, and to talk about five I have ordered from this year.

The flower farm

Flower farms are generally small businesses, often family run and set on just a few acres of land, with flowers grown and harvested by hand, and machines involved only to prepare the soil for planting. They provide local florists and markets with fresh, sustainably grown flowers of a kind unavailable from the big companies.

Since flower farmers sell only locally, this might mean growing flowers that just don't travel well: seasonal bouquets full of annuals like cosmos and scabiosa, for example, or real roses with fragrance rather than the soulless florist rose. These are nothing like supermarket flowers, usually grown on large monocultural and heavily sprayed farms, sometimes with dodgy working practices, and then flown half way around the world.

Or it might involve growing speciality flowers. As Antonio Valente of Antonio Valente Flowers in Ontario explains, as 'one of the “little guys” in the field of cut flower growing, I’m competing with large-scale growers who are producing acres of flowers, so I choose to grow specialty varieties that a florist wouldn’t typically find from a large scale wholesaler. ... This allows me to differentiate myself and compete with the “big guys".'

When it comes to bulbs, corms and tubers, these speciality varieties are often developed for the cut flower trade by European growers. They offer a greater range of colours, higher bud count, larger and more vibrant flowers, longer, stronger and more numerous stems and longer vase life. A ranunculus tuber developed specifically for the cut flower trade, for example, will produce something quite unlike that ranunculus you buy in a garden centre. And if you want to grow some really gorgeous flowers for cutting in your own garden, you need to get your hands on some of these.

In Europe I used to buy these cut-flower specific varieties from speciality companies such as Sarah Raven and Farmer Gracy; in the US, they are available retail through companies like Plant Gem, and Halden. But in Canada I have found no such equivalents. So finally, here's the crux of the matter. Why are flower farms important to the home gardener in Canada? Because a few of them not only sell their speciality cut flowers to local florists and markets, they also sell through mail order a selection of those same bulbs, corms and tubers from which they grow their flowers.

I've ordered bulbs and tubers from six flower farms this autumn and five have proven outstanding. I was rather surprised to find that, in terms of corms and tubers, the sizes offered were not only bigger than anything you'd get in a garden centre, they were also, invariably, much larger than those I used to buy in Europe.

Here's an example using tubers of 'Bianco Centro Nero' from the much sought after range of Mistral anemones developed by Italian grower Biancheri. At the bottom is a tuber bought in Europe from Farmer Gracy (stated size 2/3); at the top is a tuber bought in Canada from Dahlia May (size not stated, but my guess is at least 6/7). The European one is a tiddler in comparison.

All the anemone and ranunculus tubers I received from Canadian flower farmers were similarly impressive in size and this will be reflected in the number of flowers they produce: in the case of tubers, there's no doubt: bigger really is better.

And buying from a small business like this is just so much more pleasant than buying from the big mail order companies. I found bulbs and tubers were, as far as possible, packed in cardboard boxes or paper bags rather than in plastic bags. Customer service is typically outstanding, friendly and efficient; the only one I used where it was poor is not included here and there were extenuating circumstances.

In this first post, I'm going to focus upon Antonio Valente Flowers and Dahlia May, both in Ontario, and then in the second post, Special Effects Flower Farm, Vancouver Island, British Columbia; Lily Stone Gardens, Manitoba; and Five Acres Farm, British Columbia.

There are no doubt others, and I look forward to discovering and reporting on them in future posts. If you've had any good experiences with other such small flower farmers who similarly sell bulbs, tubers and plants to the Canadian home gardener, I'd love to hear about them in the comment section below. If you've never ordered from a flower farm before, I hope you'll take a look at these.

Antonio Valente Flowers

Antonio Valente of Antonio Valente Flowers

A small scale Ontario business committed to organic methods and sustainable flower farming, Antonio Valente Flowers supplies local florists with cut flowers but also sells what is probably the best selection of speciality bulbs and tubers available here to the home gardener. In particular, check the outstanding line up of stunning ranunculus in his autumn shop: you won't find anything like it elsewhere in Canada.

The three Butterfly Ranunculus offered as tubers by Antonio Valente Flowers: top, 'Ariadne'; bottom left, 'Isis'; bottom right: 'Minoan'.

I was particularly happy to see he's just added three Butterfly Ranunculus. As far as I'm aware, this is currently the only place Canadian gardeners can buy tubers of these beautiful flowers (I posted about them a few months ago). You might not recognise them as a ranunculus at first glance, as they have multiple stems and multiple flowers on each stem; some are single, some double. Not only are they wonderfully prolific as a cut flower but they also fit well into the garden - something that isn't always the case with ordinary ranunculus which I prefer to grow in a separate patch for cutting.

I've just treated myself to blush pink 'Isis' and apricot 'Minoan', but I thoroughly recommend the other on offer, 'Ariadne', which I think is one of the most beautiful flowers I have ever grown. AVF says you'll get 3-5 stems per tuber, but I actually got more than 10 from both 'Ariadne' and 'Europe' (heaven knows what I fed them: I think it was just a weak comfrey tea). Each stem has numerous flowers and in my experience as the buds keep opening each stem will last up to three weeks in a vase. Three tubers will cost you 28CAD which is very reasonable. For the first time, I just saw some Butterfly Ranunculus offered at a local florist in Victoria, disgracefully droopy but still 18.99CAD per stem. Yikes. That means each tuber could produce flowers worth 189CAD if you go heavy on the comfrey tea. Definitely best to buy tubers and grow your own.

The stunning Ranunculus Cloni 'Grand Pastel'

I was also tempted by a number of other ranunculus that you won't find elsewhere, including the stunning Cloni 'Grand Pastel', above, in a blend of apricot, pink and pale coral. Cloni (sometimes mistakenly spelled Clooney but no relation) is a series of cloned ranunculus with dramatic huge and many petaled flowers reminiscent of English roses; three tubers for 28CAD and again well worth it. The Italian Elegance line is a steal at 18CAD for five tubers. You can barely get a bottle of decent wine here in BC for that, and the ranunculus will offer a much less fleeting pleasure. As long as you let them die down naturally and dry in the ground, you can dig them up, and keep them dry until you are ready to replant. In my experience, the tubers get bigger and the stems more prolific each year.

Antonio Valente's autumn shop also includes tulips, daffodils and hyacinths, carefully selected varieties that are particularly good for cut flowers. Dahlias, gladiolus and other spring planting bulbs and tubers become available in April. In addition to the website, check out our Canadian cut flower king on Instagram. He's invariably entertaining.

Dahlia May Flower Farm

Getting a parcel from Dahlia May is like waking up to find it's Christmas.

Box of treats: my parcel from Dahlia May

There's clearly a lot of attention paid to detail at Dahlia May and this flower farm sets a very high standard. Each package of tubers or bulbs gives growing instructions on one side and a description of the flower with suggestions for combinations on the other (I am definitely going to try putting the tangerine orange Ranunculus 'Clementine' with some pink-toned variety.)The burlap bags for the larger bulbs is a great touch, and there's even a little note pad packed along with your order. Now I want the t-shirt!

Melanie Harrington and the Dahlia May flower farm

Florist farmer Melanie Harrington is the owner and operator of Dahlia May, founded in 2014 and based in the Murray Hills of south-eastern Ontario. She is probably Canada's best known and best loved flower farmer with 96.7K followers on her always inspiring and informative Instagram page. She offers flower subscriptions, supplies local speciality shops and farmers' markets and hosts a farm stand where you can buy the flowers every weekend, March - December.

Two of the Elegance line of ranunculus available from Dahlia May: 'Clementine' on top, and 'Crema' on bottom. 5 tubers for 18CAD.

The mail order shop offers Canadian gardeners some select narcissus and tulips, perfect for cutting - I managed to snap up some 'Verona' tulips that I'd searched for everywhere - as well as the much sought after Mistral anemones and Elegance ranunculus, both bred by Biancheri.

Once you've tried a gloriously big velvety Mistral anemone, you'll never be happy with an ordinary De Caen again. If you like your colours subtle, try 'Rarity'.

Mistral anemone 'Rarity': a soft mix of lavender, lilac and pale pink and excellent value at 10 corms for 18CAD

if you want to make more of a splash, there's always the rather startling 'Tigre'. I haven't seen this one offered anywhere else in Canada.

Mistral anemone 'Tigre' makes a big statement

And at Dahlia May, of course, in spring there will be dahlias.

Autumn planting: ranunculus and anemones

I dropped into the local GardenWorks the other day looking for cell seed trays. The place was full of pumpkins and Christmas decorations, but not a seed tray in sight. Now I love Christmas, and my heart admittedly beats a little faster when confronted by a bauble, but this is a garden centre, right, and no seed trays? When asked, the fellow at the counter admitted that it was about time they realised people were starting to sow in autumn nowadays, but all he could offer me was a cell seed tray included in a full propagation kit complete with heating mat. Great Christmas present for a young gardener perhaps, but a bit excessive for starting off a few larkspur.

The weather has finally changed here in Victoria, but it's not quite time to lay down the trowel yet, and, as in most temperate climates, the main task for this month - October - is planting bulbs and tubers.

It's my first autumn in this garden and I want to take my time deciding on permanent bulbs like narcissi, so I've planted only two varieties that I really must have for the sake of the fragrance - N. 'Actaea' (left), the poet's daffodil and N. 'Geranium' - and a mix of fragrant ruffled double narcissi from Five Acres Flower Farm.

With tulips, however, I've gone a bit overboard. These deer treats are in the back, behind an eight-foot fence, some in the ground, but the majority in pots, lasagne style, to experiment with different combinations. In the hope of deterring the squirrels, I'm sprinkling cloves on the earth and in the pots. So far, so good. There has been one attempt to scratch up my favourite 'Apricot Parrot' which appears to have been quickly abandoned. Clearly not everyone is into pumpkin spice. We'll see how it goes when the squirrels get hungrier.

One of my favourites, 'Apricot Parrot' tulip

What's really making me happy, though, is that my greenhouse is up and running and that means I can experiment with starting some anemones and ranunculus now. I'm not heating the greenhouse, just keeping it frost free, and that's ideal for starting off these cool season flowers. Of course you can plant them in the spring, but for the best flowers, the earliest, and the longest period of bloom, in zones 7 and up, this is the time to do it.

Theoretically, here in Victoria they could be planted directly in the garden in the autumn, and just protected if a hard frost is predicted. But my experience in Scotland with winter rains makes me wary. Anemones and ranunculus are surprisingly tough plants, belying their delicate appearance. They don't mind the cold and can even take a touch of frost, but excess damp equals death: they are so prone to rotting. If you don't have a greenhouse, a cold frame or mini plastic greenhouse would suffice, just throwing on some fleece as extra protection when frost is forecast.

So this is the plan, an adaptation of what I used to do in Scotland, and we'll see how it works. I'm starting off some ranunculus and anemone tubers now, in October. In January, I'll plant some out in the garden (with protection, I'll be using a low level plastic tunnel), transfer others into larger pots for outside, and keep a few growing in the greenhouse to see what works best. With luck, the anemones should start to flower by March (a bit after I've begun my second planting) and ranunculus by April. I'll post updates on my progress.

How to start the tubers

Here's the process for starting tubers now, if you haven't tried this before:

• First soak your tubers. Ranunculus need to be soaked for only 3 or 4 hours; anemones need longer, between 12-24 hours. The tubers will swell up.

Anemone tubers soaking at top. The bottom image shows the difference in a 'Rosa Chiaro' before and after soaking. These are first class tubers from Canadian flower farmer, Antonio Valente Flowers, and even dry are larger than any Mistral anemones I've had before.

• Now plant them into 9cm square pots, using potting compost mixed with perlite, or better, if you can find it, horticultural grit: this is mainly to ensure good drainage. Ranunculus are planted with the little legs downward. It's more difficult to tell the top of an anemone but you might see a circular marking on the tuber which identifies the top (if you don't, no matter, it will find its own way up anyway).

The circular shape identifies the top of the anemone tuber

•Keep just moist enough to stop them going dormant again, but not wet. If it gets very cold, you can pop on a propagator lid, and perhaps some fleece to give the plants extra protection, but don't leave it on too long: they need air. Most importantly, keep the greenhouse or cold frame well-ventilated.

Some ranunculus already shooting only a week after planting

• The ranunculus may start producing shoots quite fast; the anemones may take their time. They should both grow slowly and make stocky plants. Once they are up and running, you can give them a feed of weak seaweed solution.

Where to buy your tubers

Most large bulb companies will have a small selection of bog standard anemones and ranunculus, although most focus on spring sales for these tubers. But if you want to grow some really gorgeous flowers then you need to look elsewhere.

UK and Europe: Farmer Gracy: Based in the Netherlands and the UK, this was always my favourite bulb company when I lived in Europe. They stock unusual bulbs of all kinds and have an excellent selection of Italian anemones and ranunculus. Prices are also very good. For example, you can get 10 Mistral 'Blanco centro Nero' anemone tubers for under 5£ (less than 6USD and 8CAD) and 10 Elegance 'Bianco Sfumato' ranunculus for under 8£ (about 9USD and 12CAD). You won't find prices like this outside Europe where most specialities have been developed: North American growers and sellers have to deal with customs and import taxes.

USA: There's a wealth of opportunity for those wanting something different in the USA. The selection of ranunculus at Eden Brothers is eye opening, for example, but you just can't beat the over 70 varieties offered at Fleur Farm where you can get Butterfly, Romance and Clonal ranunculus. I am lusting after the clonal 'Chartreuse', 5 tubers for 27.95USD, and 'Ginette', 5 tubers for 34.95USD, and absolutely any of the Romance series, but unfortunately Fleur Farm had to give up sending to Canada because of rising costs and other complications.

Canada: Unsurprisingly, Canada is the most difficult place to obtain unusual bulbs. The few big bulb companies offer next to nothing in the way of exciting ranunculus and anemones and for these you must look to the specialist flower farmers. For the interest of Canadian readers, I am putting together a short post on some of these specialists will post within a day or two. These are smaller, often family businesses, and they offer exceptional service and exceptional quality. Update: I have to wait for permission for images, so I hope to have this post up on early next week. In the meantime, if you want to buy tubers, you could check the selections at Antonio Valente Flowers and at Dahlia May Flower Farm.