Making babies: propagating plants for your garden and others

Fall and spring are good times to think about making babies.  And we’re talking about propagating plants for your own garden or to re-gift to friends and family.

Propagation is such a technical and intimidating term. Sometimes, it’s appropriate for the machinations of creating new plants. One example is the technique of “layering” stems of a living plant; the stems later put down roots and can be separated from the parent plant to become a new baby from the garden. Not too complex really, but some memory and delayed gratification is required. Another example recalls the story of a friend who used an electric toothbrush to stimulate reproduction of his squash. Similarly, a bit complicated, if not slightly provocative.

No, today we will keep it simple. Here are just a few examples of making babies in the garden:

IMG_2370 hydrangia


This low-maintenance perennial shrub puts up gorgeous globe-like blooms the size of Tilley Hats. It enjoys sunshine but can tolerate some shade too. We have some white-blooming and a couple of pink-blooming varieties. The blooms create a nice counterpoint to the shrub’s huge green leaves, and can be brought inside for a stunning bouquet, fresh or dried. Making Hydrangea babies: The Hydrangea roots spread vigorously.  I’ve found they benefit from a mulch of large rocks, twisting and turning around the rocks to see moisture and provide a solid base for the shrub.  In fall or spring, dig up some roots, with stems attached, on the side of the shrub’s root ball. Trim most of the leaves off the stems and place in a pot, well watered, until you have decided on a new site to transplant. Use some compost for a nutritional head-start when you replant.

Image result for red bergamot

Red Bergamot (Bee’s Balm):

Like Hydrangea, this perennial flower spreads vigorously by roots. My parents-in-law Ann and Claus acquired some on a walk around Horseshoe Lake. They were dazzled by the red blooms and complimented the gardener, an older gent with a massive garden on Reynolds Road. He promptly offered them some. Now the gift has been given again, as Ann encouraged me to take a couple of plants from Claus’s veggie garden this summer. They had provided chaotic colour at one end of the garden, north of Claus’s orderly rows of beans, kohlrabi, peas and other veggies. Bergamot also has herbal/medicinal qualities. Making Bergamot babies: Dig up some root with stems and leaves in fall or spring, place in a pot and keep well watered until you find a new spot to plant. The leaves may die back a bit, but the plant will put out new leaves once it recovers. Once planted, stick a plastic marker next to the new plant to remember the location. With some TLC, your baby Bergamot will put on a nice scarlet and aromatic show next year.

IMG_2900 Concorde Grape

Concord Grape:

I found a stem of this plant growing as a volunteer in my Thorncliffe Park Community Garden plot, but I have also propagated it by digging up part of a vine from its root. A native Ontario species, it produces sweet small purple grapes in fall.  These were key to Ontario’s wine industry before fancier varieties came along. You can also eat the leaves, steamed or baked, I believe, as we have had visitors making off with bags full of grape leaves. Making Concord Grape babies: Keep an eye for a baby plant or dig up part of the root of an existing vine. Keep it well watered until you find a new location to plant the baby. In future, enjoy a sweet late summer grape-snack or make grape juice or jelly!








The snacking garden

After all that weeding, watering and waiting, it’s harvest time — but in your haste to share your bounty with family of friends, take a moment to reward yourself first.

Depending on the season, a variety of instant snacks await the industrious gardener:

Let’s say it’s a warm late August day and you are stopping by your garden to pick the first of the carrot crop, along with some luscious-looking dark green-and-purple kale, and beefsteak tomatoes. These fresh organic vegetables will be gobbled up this Labour Day weekend by family who have gathered at your inlaws’ cottage.

But a bountiful harvest requires a well-fuelled gardener. So while you start to pick the big tomatoes, you can’t help but binge on some sweet Tiny Tims. These cherry tomatoes have grown as “volunteer” plants from compost you applied to the soil this spring. In fact, this year’s volunteer tomato plants are actually the prize winners — they ripened when the sun finally started to shine consistently late this summer after a wet spring. What’s more, these Tiny Tims are much better for you than that 12-pack of Tim Bits you had your eye on while in line for coffee at Timmies.

Nearby, your perennial spinach is delivering a second crop as fall sets in.  The flowers have died back and a new set of lush green leaves has sprouted.  You learned about this plant — also known as perpetual spinach — from your garden neighbor Pat.  She came by one day and asked to take home a few leaves.  You were puzzled by the perennial as it had been planted by the previous gardener of your allotment plot.  You were accustomed to annual spinach planted from seed each spring.

But Pat set you straight — perpetual spinach is a vigorous producer of spinach-like leaves that pack a spicy punch.  It’s a low maintenance and nutritious snack.  So you follow up your Tiny Tim binge with a chaser of several snacking leaves of perpetual spinach.

And as you admire your first crop of Kale, which will be steamed for dinner on the weekend, you cannot help but notice the first scarlet runner beans that are ripening on your crude bamboo trellis. Your nephew Ben planted the seeds this spring.  You pick a few to snack on — they are tasty and crunchy. And on a more sensible note, they are sure to give the snacking gardener his or her daily fibre requirement.

Now give yourself a pat on the back.  You are taking home some fresh vegetables to share with others. But as the Wealthy Barber once said when he shared his retirement planning secrets…

…you paid yourself first.






Warming up to my gooseberry bush

It’s taken 15 years but I think I am warming up to my gooseberry bush.

I inherited it from the previous gardener at my Thorncliffe Park Community  Garden plot. It was a sprawling, spikey green thing about three feet tall and wide. I gave it sideways glances while I planted more important crops, like tomatoes and beans.

But in July, the gooseberry bush could not be denied. It bore loads of berries, pin-striped, like plump little new suits from Tip Top Tailors. They ripened from green to a deep purple in the full sunshine and long days of summer.


I got scratched picking hundreds of them. My crop was donated to my father-in-law, Claus, who made gooseberry jam for the family at the cottage.

Through trial and error, I learned how to pick the berries while avoiding the nasty spikes, I would hold the top of one branch in my fingertips, pulling it up and away from the others, and carefully strip it berry by berry with the other hand. The spikes actually drive away birds and other critters — including humans — meaning you keep more berries for yourself.

Counting berries while you pick doesn’t hurt — you can give yourself a goal of 100 or 200 to see past the pain of your sore back and joints while you slowly circle the bush on bended knee. Folks in the corporate world have told you to lean in for success. The same principle applies for gooseberry picking.

I also learned how to propagate my gooseberry bush — this is a fancy gardening term for making babies.  To make a baby bush, grab a low-lying branch in spring, push it into the soil and bury part of the branch a couple of inches down. Leave some leaf exposed to the sunshine at the tip of the branch.

Over the fall and winter, this “layered” branch will put down roots. In spring, you can snip it from the mother bush and plant it elsewhere.  I took one to the cottage, where I now have a second nice mature gooseberry bush. I have given a few baby bushes away to gardening friends.  It`s the gift that keeps on giving.

If you are the foraging type, you can spot wild gooseberries along Ontario roadsides — they even sport spikes on the berries themselves. I`ve heard tell you can somehow defang them and use them for pies and jams. Or maybe just jelly, leaving the fangs in the screen before you boil up a batch. You`d have to google it.


This week, Mehtab helped me pick a couple of pints of gooseberries at Thorncliffe Park. Claus passed away this summer and Ann has tried her hand at the jam making, with delicious results. Both Nadine and I have picked gooseberries in Toronto and Minden for Claus and Ann. So this next bunch will go to Ann in the hopes of jam batch number two.

I am sure there are more gooseberry dishes out there for the making. Rather than check Google, I consulted the Joy of Cooking 1997 edition and discovered that Gooseberry Fool was a popular dish in 17th Century England, blending custard and stewed gooseberries. The modern version involves pureed gooseberries and whipped cream.

Call me a gooseberry fool — but I think I am warming up to my gooseberry bush after all these years.









The secret to immortality: multiplier onions

When I started growing vegetables at Thorncliffe Park Community Garden a few years ago, my father-in-law Claus gifted me a few “multipliers.”

These were multiplying onions, and they are the gift that keeps giving.

In fact, because they never stop giving, and because you must keep planting and eating them going forward, they will guarantee your own immortality — much more so than cryogenic freezing, or belief in reincarnation, for example.

img_0418-onionsPlanting: First, let’s talk planting. A single dried multiplier onion bulb planted in spring will give you two bulbs harvested in fall. Eat one, and keep the next for next year. Or leave your second bulb in the ground and it will overwinter and multiply next year.

Harvesting bulbs: Onions are also time travelers. You can harvest in the fall, dirt and all, leave them in a cool dry place, like your basement, and forget about them. Once the excitement of the holiday season is done, you can have a eureka moment when you remember where you left the onions. Then you can process your onions for a mid-winter harvest.

Processing simply involves shaking off any dried dirt, peeling off a few gnarly layers of onion skin, and finding a new container to keep them handy for cooking in your kitchen. The  lazy Susan works well. You can complete your processing on the dining room table while your better half prepares dinner. Careful to tidy up after! Identify multipliers as the ones that are not perfectly round — like the one near the bottom of this photo — it has a flatter side that used to press up against its multiplier twin.

Surprise! So enjoy this surprise winter harvest! To use your onions in some tasty winter dishes, such as crockpots, start with the larger ones first. Any little ones left over in early spring can be replanted. They may even start putting out some green shoots in your kitchen, which shows they are eager.

In spring time, any onions you missed in the fall harvest become volunteers for this season. They will declare themselves in due course when they push up green shoots from the dirt.

Harvesting greens: To get fresh greens close at hand, put a bunch of onion bulbs in a pot to keep handy outside your kitchen door in spring. Keep it watered and exposed to sun. Soon you’ll be out there with scissors picking off some of the fresh greens to put on top of pasta.

Savoring the harvest: Small onions go nicely in a crockpot in a dish such as lamb stew. When will simmered, they give a burst of rich flavor to complement the meat and other vegetable goodies and spices.

Here’s to your hereafter! So much going on with multiplier onions. They start as the gift that keeps on giving, and they end up guaranteeing your immortality.

Gardening gratification with Ben and Sally-Anne

Gardening gratification comes in two forms: delayed or instant. A recent fall trip to the community garden with my nephew Ben and his support worker Sally-Anne proves the point.

Delayed gratification: Tulip planting. There is no bigger leap of faith than digging in tulips for spring. We are talking a six-month return on investment before tulips put on their spring colour show, following daffodils and even earlier birds such as snowdrops and crocuses. That is if the squirrels don’t get to the bulbs first as a fall snack.

It’s a late afternoon in October and we are headed to Thorncliffe Park Community Garden, located on the hydro corridor just north of Overlea Drive. It’s a little oasis off the beaten track of one of Toronto’s densest urban neighborhoods.

So far, the weather is not co-operating. The minivan wipers are set on intermittent, which means we still have a chance for our late-season gardening session. In fall and spring, our minivan has been dubbed “the shed” by Nadine, as it tends to house a collection of gardening tools, pots, mulch and other stuff in the hatch. Here’s to stow-and-go seating!

As we pull into the community garden and drive up to my 12×20-foot piece of paradise, the rain turns to mist. I’ve brought umbrellas just in case. However Ben assures me, with Sally-Anne interpreting his sign language, that he likes rain, so we are good to go in any case.

We pull out a box of 50 tulip bulbs. Woven among some perennial flowers and herbs, they will create a bright red border along the west side of the garden in spring.


The planting exercise involves an assembly line of sorts. I dig the holes using an old piece of lumber to poke spaces in the soil, about six inches deep. Following me is Ben, who leans on the fence to carefully aim and drop bulbs one by one into each hole. Sally-Anne rounds out our line by making sure each bulb is upright (roots down), and uses a trowel to cover them up with soil. We get in about 40 bulbs, which means there are some left-overs for Ben and Sally-Anne to bring home to plant.



Over the long Canadian winter, the bulbs will set down some roots. They will wait patiently until the time is right to signal spring with their scarlet blooms.



Instant gratification: Sweet September raspberries. When I inherited this plot from a former gardening friend, she left some dwarf raspberry canes in the north-east corner. I can’t say I’ve done much with them except to enjoy the harvest — they put up fruit twice a year. My father-in-law Claus calls the fall crop “Sweet Septembers.” My canes have produced some sweet Octobers this year, so I pick a dozen of the last purple-red ripe raspberries and the three of us split them up for an instant treat. It’s almost suppertime, so the raspberry snack will buy us some time for the next gardening task.

Delayed gratification: the 2014 carrot crop. It’s been six months of weeding, watering and waiting. Now the carrots are ready to harvest. A few of the bigger ones have presented themselves — the orange tops now visible above the soil. I loosen the big ones and Ben hauls them up by their greens.

We head to the water tap to wash off the dirt, revealing a couple dozen healthy but gnarly looking carrots. Healthy, because they seem to have resisted the bugs that sometimes eat into the crop underground. Gnarly, because some of them are looking like something out of a sci-fi movie — the carrot that ate Don Mills.


Folks, you will never see carrots like these on store shelves. But they are tasty. We nibble on a couple of the little ones — sweet!

Ben and Sally-Anne each take home a basket, and I will be back for another couple of dozen before the soil freezes. Even after freeze up, if you miss a few carrots, they will generally sit tight over winter and provide a spring windfall when the soil thaws.

Instant gratification: Swiss Chalet. It’s getting dark and Ben agrees that we are done gardening for the day. We wash our hands under the nearest water tap. We’re getting a bit hungry and the raspberries and carrots have only bought us so much time.

As luck would have it, there is a Swiss Chalet located a stone’s throw from the community garden. We are seated by the hostess at a cozy booth, and gaze through the colourful options on the menu.

Ben is a pasta guy but likes his meal plain. When the waitress arrives, she asks Ben for his order. Ben signs and Sally-Anne translates. He has his own sign for pasta, using his index fingers and thumbs to indicate a pulling motion, like stretching a piece of spaghetti. He would like the fettucini, with some butter and salt. The menu shows a fettucini dish loaded with chicken and veggies, and I am reminded of the Jack Nicholson scene where he just wants toast, but has to order a chicken sandwich, hold the chicken, hold the mayo, etc. But Swiss Chalet is stepping up to the plate on Ben’s custom dinner order. The waitress asks Ben if he wants anything else on the pasta and he signs the letter “p” for Parmesan. Ben smiles and gasps when his pasta arrives, and I tuck into my quarter-chicken dinner.

Sally-Anne, who is one of Ben’s support workers, is studying for her sign-language interpretation diploma at George Brown, balancing school with work and being a mom to her five-year-old daughter. She’s heading to Montreal tomorrow for a couple of days for a break and some fun with friends.

Ben is a man who starts what he finishes. HIs pasta plate is clean as a whistle, and he’s making his way through his diet pepsi and chocolate cake while I savour my apple pie a la mode.  Ben is interested in the folks in the restaurant, including some retired couples and families. From his booth seat, he has a wide view of the place and is keeping an eye on the goings on.

We finish up and head home — soon I’ll put the garden to bed for the winter. We will all enjoy our carrot crop, and we’ll be back next spring to check out the tulips.

Bike stories — A half a bike in Hazelton

Joan Richard was a young girl living near Hazelton, B.C. when she got her first bike in the late 1940s. Actually, half a bike. She had to share the whole bike with her older sister Ann.

Joan is now a retired nurse and champion bridge player, not to mention mom and grandma. She was at home recently about to have a chicken soup dinner when I spoke with her.She was receiving some TLC from her sister Cathy and daughter Cathy after she stopped her treatments for cancer. “I’m being treated like a Queen here,” she said. Joan’s niece, my wife Nadine, had told me about the half-a-bike story, so I asked Joan to share it. Ann has also added some memories.

Joan: My sister Ann and I wanted bikes but money was a bit tight just after the war ended so we started saving. It wasn’t going to get us two bikes anytime soon, so the plan was to share one.

Ann: We saved by sawing logs with a crosscut saw — I think for one cent a log. My parents were happy to give us the job because they supplemented the home heating with firewood. You needed a good stock of firewood because it got pretty cold in Hazelton in the winter. The bike was going to cost us twenty-four dollars, and our parents would pay half, so we figured we went through about 1,200 logs to get the twelve dollars.

Joan: We ordered the bike through the wholesaler Marshall Wells, which served Hazelton. My dad was an engineer and the manager in the Silver Standard lead-zync mine about 8 miles from town.

The bike was an ordinary one-speed with pedal brakes and we just had to share it. Most of the time one of us would ride it and the other would run alongside, and maybe the dog would tag along too. The bike was made by CCM but had some other brand on it which I can’t recall, maybe related to the wholesaler.

We lived in the mining camp so it wasn’t like there were a lot of flat spaces to bike around. It was quite rugged — lots of bumps and humps. You couldn’t go too fast but it was fun.

Ann: Our parents Harry and Mary Gilleland had a nice two-bedroom home at the mining camp, with a basement that had a trap-door entrance. Our younger sister Cathy was about six years younger than Joan. We had to host some guests from time to time, including some of the big mining bosses from Vancouver who needed a place to stay when they visited. So we added a third bedroom at some point. It was a nice home given that we were basically living in the bush.

Joan: The next year, we made a plan to get bike number 2, and we had a deal. We would save for it together and place our order. The bikes came in red and blue but you couldn’t special-order your colour choice. So we agreed that if the bike was red, it would be mine. If it was blue, it would be Ann’s.

Well the bike was red so I was lucky and Ann kept the first one. Sibling rivalry? I don’t remember too much of that.

Ann: We did have our occasional spats. One summer we were sawing wood and Joan was wearing shorts. As the result of some kind of altercation, which was likely partly my fault, Joan got nicked by the saw teeth and ended up with three scars.

Joan: I would have been about 8 and Ann was 10. There weren’t many places to bike around the mining camp but there was an isolated road that ran about 8 miles to town, mostly downhill. We would get on our bikes and a couple of friends might come along, and we would all woosh down the road to Hazelton together.

Of course, it was uphill on the way back so we could usually get a ride home. We would throw the bikes in the back of a truck and catch a ride.

We were like street urchins. We were outside almost all summer. There weren’t many kids our age but I don’t ever recall being bored.

We had our bikes and the run of the place.



We can rebuild her — we have the technology

“Flight com, I can’t hold her! She’s breaking up! She’s breaking—”.

The image of a rusted red two-wheeler rocketing through the atmosphere. The bike hits the ground at 250 mph and tumbles six times.

The 1964 CCM, vintage one-speed. A bicycle barely alive.  Bought for a song at a Kingston antique market after re-entering earth’s atmosphere.

Gentlemen, we can rebuild her. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic bike. The vintage 1964 CCM Ladies one-speed will be that bike. Better than she was before. Better…stronger…faster.

Cue music as the bike’s frame is lifted up from the makeshift painting booth consisting of a broken 1×6 from the neighbor’s fence and suspended with cheap yellow nylon rope from the rafters of the kinross cordless workshop.

A high-tech imaging machine rattles off diagnostics and rebuild checkpoints:

— bionic legs: the bike’s wheels — check. Bearings are cleaned and repacked, spokes are freed, new rubber and tubes complete the rebuilt wheels.


— a bionic eye — check. The original CCM fork caps complement the bike’s bionic eye — the original CCM head-badge installed when the bike was built at the Weston plant in Toronto. The eye will guide the bike along future roads less travelled.

— bionic arm — check. An aftermarket yet sturdy Swedish kickstand sits the bike up nice and straight when it’s not in motion.

— and finally, the atomic core. The CCM brand is built into the architecture of the pedal crank, and the elegant one-piece pedal arm is back in place with clean bearings. The bike’s frame and forks are restored to their original true-blue tone.


Cue slow motion visual sequence and electronic “dit dit dit” synthesized sound effects.

The bike is back in motion heading west-bound on Nealon Avenue. Kids playing ball hockey sweep their net back to let the CCM pass. Their eyes zoom in like telephoto lenses on the sharp new period decal on the bike’s downtube, obtained from a gent in Truro, Nova Scotia.

The mechanic stands up in the pedals, sweeps southbound on Arundel Avenue. The new wheels and tires give a smooth ride. A pounding sound creszendos to fill the soundtrack — it is the beating heart of the bicycle mechanic, riding one-handed and fumbling with his blackberry to take photos of the test ride while an automobile tries to squeeze by headed east on Browning. Flight com, this is no time to drop the bike.


Finally we are headed back north on Logan. The Norway maples in Riverdale are in lush green bloom following a hard Canadian winter. Soon the bike will be headed back to Quinton and the Blue-Bradshaws in Kingston for some summer fun.

The 1964 CCM vintage one-speed is back in motion, 50 years young, better than she was before.

Better… stronger… faster.