Creating your Container Garden Plan

container garden on the patio

Container garden on the Patio (thomas pix)

The Victoria Day weekend is quickly approaching in Canada, as is the Memorial Day long weekend in the U.S. These are weekends when most gardeners in Canada and the northern American states plant their gardens. So if you’re an apartment-dweller, perhaps you’ve finally stopped looking with longing at other people’s yard gardens, and decided to start container gardening on your balcony or patio.

Congratulations! But before you get started, remember that it’s not enough just to buy a bag of soil and some annuals or vegetables, slap them into containers, and stick them outside. To garden successfully, you should set up a container garden plan in advance. Acquire your knowledge and materials ahead of time, and you’ll have a better chance of making a lush, prosperous garden in those balcony pots.

The first step in your container garden plan is to look at the spots where you plan to locate the containers. What are the conditions there? Does your balcony get full shade most of the day, with only a bit of sunshine in a four or five hour span? A container vegetable garden with plants needing full sun all day is pretty much ruled out. Or is there a mix of very sunny spots and those that get just few hours of sun each day? Choose your plants accordingly. Even a steadily blowing breeze will affect your choice of plants and garden planter. Those plants that really need moisture and dry out quickly in normal circumstances will probably not survive the extra air movement causing even more water to evaporate from the soil. Don’t choose your plants and then try to squeeze them into less than ideal conditions. Look at the conditions first, and discover which plants best fit them.

Consult your store or garden center as you create your container garden plan, and get an idea of what plants will even be available there. If you know what plants they’re bringing in, you can do advance research about the growing conditions they need. It’s true that pots give you an advantage, in that you can move plants around and test if they’ll grow better in one spot than another. But if you buy container gardening annuals that normally grow in certain conditions, yet your patio never experiences those conditions, you can hardly expect the plants to succeed.

The next step in your container garden plan is to learn what type of soil each plant needs. You can put several different plants in one container, but be sure they complement each other. For example, putting potatoes, tomatoes, or peppers in the same pot will drain the soil of nutrients very quickly. All of those plants are in the nightshade family, and need similar nutritional elements. The growing environment will succeed and soil replenishment will occur if one plant discards what the other needs, or if they are drawing different nutritional compounds from the soil. Take a look at fertilizers as well, and learn the daily or weekly needs of each plant.

Even your choice of garden planter is important. For example, carrots need a pot deep enough to accommodate the fully grown plant with space to spare, and wide enough to grow several carrot plants. Potatoes and garlic need different sized pots. Containers of herbs need other sizes. All of these factors need to be taken into account when creating your container garden plan.

You can concentrate solely on container gardening annuals, or you might major on vegetables and herbs. But the look and atmosphere of your garden will benefit from a mixture of flowers, vegetables, and herbs. A tomato plant in the corner might look nice with some pots of white petunias in front  and a stand of basil and rosemary containers beside it. Your container garden plan extends to the look and feel of your garden almost as much as creating the right growing conditions. Even if your emphasis is vegetables, a few pots of flowers will brighten things. And don’t worry about using up all your herbs; you can cut and dry sprigs as summer goes on, and use them in the winter.

Toronto Music Garden: a place of Enchantment


"Gigue" - Folia Ensemble

I went for the baroque music, and found something even more enchanting.

The Toronto Music Garden, created in 1999 by famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma and landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy, is the site of the annual Summer Music in the Garden series each week at the Harbourfront Centre. It provides a beautiful setting, with the featured performers playing under the green trailing branches of a tall tree, with spectators sitting on tiers of grass forming an amphitheatre above, surrounded by a rich garden of wild flowers, tall grasses, and lush bushes and trees.

Sunday’s performers were FOLIA, a trio of musicians playing authentic baroque instruments: Linda Melsted on the violin, Kiri Tollaksen on cornetto, and Borys Medicky on the virginals (a small version of a harpsichord). We were treated to a program called “Utopian Voices,” a pleasant concert under the warm sun of a summer Sunday afternoon. Free concerts like this, for me, are one of the best things about living in Toronto.

Fifth Movement - Menuette


But as I strolled along a nearby path after the concert ended, I discovered another “best thing.” I came upon a small sign that said, “5 – Menuette,” and which described the gardens and the metal circular pavilion before which it stood, in the area above and behind the amphitheatre.  I thought to myself, “If there’s a number 5, where are numbers 1 through 4?” And I set out to discover them.

I found myself following a series of labyrinthine pathways leading from an entrance point (1 – Prelude) past other musical movements: 2 – Allemande, 3 – Courante, and so on, a series of musical concepts that made me think of something like the Stations of the Cross. The paths ducked into secret groves under the trees, led the way past benches sitting in serene shadow, or circled around groupings of boulders in the midst of enclosures bounded by fir trees or grasses.



One path circled around and around among tall grasses and meadow wildflowers planted to attract butterflies and birds (I saw two butterflies that looked an awful lot like Monarchs), finally coming into the open where the sculpture of a maypole loomed overhead. Another path of rough flagstones circled into what was called a “poet’s corner,” surrounded by a wall of evergreens. A large stone at its centre held a still pool of water, and in the enclosure stood a man playing a flute.

The haunting music followed me as I worked my way back out and along the rest of the paths. In the end, I found six signs: or rather, six movements(**), as the Music Garden was designed to interpret J.S. Bach’s First Suite for Unaccompanied Cello. The idea was first broached to the city of Boston, which never followed through, and that city’s loss has been Toronto’s gain. The Music Garden rolls gently over three hills, the paths rising and falling even as they spiral and weave.

This is truly an enchanted garden, music expressed in nature, nature embodying music. I can’t believe I didn’t even know it was there until yesterday. But you can be sure that I will be revisiting the magical, musical place as often as I can.




(** The movements are: 1-Prelude, 2-Allemande, 3-Courante, 4-Sarabande, 5-Menuette, and 6-Gigue)

Waltzing through the world of chocolate

Chocolate dipped strawberries

Chocolate dipped strawberries (Photo courtesy Flickr user wstryder)

Think the connection of chocolate to Valentine’s Day is just artificial commercial hype? You may be right. But why don’t we dance quickly through the history of chocolate, and see if we can find out why we link it to love.

The very word — mmmmmm, chocolate — comes from the Aztec word xocolatl, meaning “bitter water.” And the Aztecs associated chocolate with their goddess of fertility, Xochiquetzal. There — you see? Love and chocolate. The two go together. This is an excellent start.

And the stuff has been around forever. Well, about 3500 years, anyway. The cacao plant started being cultivated in what we now call Central America, sometime between 1100 and 1400 BCE, when the pulp of the chocolate fruit (rather than the bean, which is the big deal today) was used to make a fermented beverage.

Amaretto, raspberry, champagne, pear

Amaretto, raspberry, champagne, pear (Photo courtesy Flickr user quinn.anya)

There ya go. The first hint of combining chocolate and alcohol. Though perhaps we’d prefer wine today, rather than some mere “fermented beverage.” But let us dance on…

Walzing slowly and leisurely over the next 3000 years, we see that cacao beans became a valuable trade commodity, even used as a form of currency and tribute payment. In later uses, it was still made into a drink, but this time using the bean. And it was often drunk with chili flavouring.

Hm. Romantic or…not?

Enter the European explorers, and the tempo really picks up as we start a fast dance, heading toward the chocolate we know today. Christopher Columbus first took a few beans back to the court of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, the patrons for his voyages, but about 90 years later, cacao came to Europe in earnest (to Spain, primarily) to be used commercially.

And that’s when it started inching closer to a form we might begin to recognize as chocolate now. Europeans mostly abandoned the use of chili in the drink, replacing it with vanilla (another spice that had come from Central America), adding sugar and milk to counteract the bitterness.

The Chocolate Orgy Ended in Love - photo by Darwin Bell

The Chocolate Orgy Ended in Love (Photo courtesy Flickr user Darwin Bell)

Now we begin a sprightly court dance as, about a century later, Englishman Hans Sloane, President of the Royal Society and a founder of the British Museum, created the milk-and-chocolate recipe, which he later sold to the Cadbury brothers. And suddenly we encounter a name we really associate with chocolate. Almost there!

Our dance gets more lively, the chocolates we would recognize finally arriving with the Industrial Revolution, as machines would develop that could squeeze out cocoa butter. And while “squeezing out cocoa butter” doesn’t exactly sound romantic, it’s getting us closer and closer to that heart-shaped box of chocolates, because this was the process that gradually led to the ability to keep chocolate hard.

And now we’ve danced to the side of the room where modern-day chocolates hold court. But the question remains: is there a reason why chocolate and love are associated?


Belgian chocolates (Photo courtesy Flickr user sophiea)

Well, some chocolate, especially dark chocolate, is said to be good for the heart, possibly even helping to prevent heart attacks. But that’s probably not the sort of heart we’re thinking of. Yet dark chocolate does contain some antioxidants and elements that help the circulation — can you feel your heart thumping and your blood stirring?

And it also contains a stimulant called theobromine, that helps to elevate the mood. In fact, the botanical name of the plant, Theobroma cacao, means “food of the gods.”

Which, of course, it is.

But aphrodisiac effects? Probably not. What we are feeling, we chocolate lovers, nay worshippers — what we feel when we eat chocolate is simply a sensual pleasure from the texture and the lovely taste. With perhaps a little help from those mood-lifting elements. But for the most part, we add the romantic elements ourselves, gathering happy, pleasurable things together into one experience. Which, in the end, is perfectly fine as we settle back into a slow dance, just enjoying the moment.

Though I still suspect we may be getting a distant little push from Xochiquetzal.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Chocolate Planet II - photo by fdecomite

Chocolate Planet II (Photo courtesy Flickr user fdecomite)

(Many thanks to Maia C, who is no mean photographer of chocolate herself, for this Valentine’s Day idea! Sending a box of virtual chocolates to her.)

Paul Gross scares me

Paul Gross scares me. In both a deliciously good and a disquietingly bad way.

I saw him interviewed last evening, as part of the Dean’s Lecture Series at the Faculty of Communication & Design at Ryerson University. The audience consisted mostly of students from that faculty and from the School of Radio and Television Arts, everyone eager to hear a “horse’s mouth” account of Mr. Gross’s experiences in theatre, television, and film. And to hear what he predicted for those industries in the future.

We got more than we dreamed of, and perhaps also more than we wanted.


Paul Gross, in Paul Gross’s Words

Paul Gross and Ryerson professor David Langer

Paul Gross and Ryerson professor David Langer

First of all, the man is hilarious. Which will surprise no one who watched his delivery of those shriekingly funny deadpan lines as the Mountie, Benton Fraser, in the TV series Due South. But when our evening started out with a clip of scenes from many of his TV and film appearances over the years — and he then commented, “That was like an acid flashback” — the tone was set for most of the evening.

He’s scary-good because of his many talents. Moving frequently as he grew up in a military family, he tended to end up with the “weirdos” at his new schools, and got pushed toward the arts because he couldn’t do math. While beginning to act, as a young person, he also started writing because the in-between-acting moments were “kind of dull.” His first publically produced play was a big success. Over the years, he’s added producing and directing to his repertoire, and of course, as a Canadian film-maker, “Fundraiser” has become another unofficial title.

And he does music too: he was trained in classical guitar at the age of sixteen.

All this prompts one to claim, “Is there anything he can’t do??” But Gross downplays much of this track record, or at least attributes his success mainly to perseverance. He believes there are many people with far more talent who are much less successful because they aren’t as stubbornly persistent as he is, in going after what they want.

Yet the talent is undeniable. He admits that playing Hamlet at the Stratford Festival in 2000 was a turning point, because doing that role changes a person forever. He was told that there are “pre-Hamlet” actors and “post-Hamlet” actors, and says doing that role is “like going to the world’s meanest, cruellest therapist.” He describes how he actually started blacking out — “simply disappearing” — during entire scenes (which his fellow actors nonetheless told him he did very well, even if he wasn’t consciously there). When he asked another Canadian actor and previous Hamlet, Brent Carver, about this, Carver replied matter-of-factly, “Oh yes, that’ll happen. It will last for a while. And then you’ll be paranoid for a while.”

Gross recounts how Christopher Plummer, another former Stratford Hamlet, chatted with him before a performance, saying how good it was that he was getting to do the role. Gross finally asked, “You’re wishing you could do it again, aren’t you?” To which Plummer replied, “F**k yes, I’d do it in the parking lot right now.”

Gross had some hilarious tales to tell about being the producer, and/0r director, and/or writer of shows like Due South, the film Men With Brooms, and his most recent triumph, the First World War movie Passchendaele.

For example, he and John Krizanc co-wrote Men With Brooms, neither knowing a thing about the sport of curling, yet Gross wanted to do a curling story because curling was “a fundamentally hilarious sport.” So Krizanc got a rulebook, and many of their ideas (including the climax of the final game) came simply from reading the rules. And Gross loved doing Passchendaele for many reasons, but admitted that one of them was, “I’m a guy, and I like gear.” So he’d drive onto the field thinking, “This is all my shit! There’s my army! Go in and invade that country!”


The Canadian scene, and the Arts in general

Paul Gross talks to students at Ryerson

Paul Gross talks to students at Ryerson

Gross also relates several tales about the fundraising he had to do for Passchendaele. The process took about ten years, and he wishes he could have made a documentary just of the lunches and meetings, and all the odd billionaires he encountered.

But as he described this fundraising process, the scary-bad elements entered into the conversation. Because Gross, having delved into so many aspects of theatre, film, and television, has a perspective on Canadian arts, Hollywood, and the world artistic culture in general, that few of us have. And what he sees at the moment is not good.

He’s long been known as a fierce advocate of government funding of the arts in Canada. Whenever the federal government threatens the arts — again — Paul Gross is right up front, demanding that the feds honour the arts as every other country in the world does. He goes so far as to say that if a country does not build a kaleidoscope of its own stories, so that all citizens can understand each other, no government can possibly work.

And he loves telling Canadian stories. As he says, we have an extraordinary history that we have become ashamed of for some reason. And we have a lot to tell the rest of the world, not the least of which is our accomplishment of taking in everyone in (especially in Toronto), with almost no trouble. Plus, he adds, “Canadian iconography is hysterically funny. A beaver? And our flag has a leaf on it. A leaf.”

The fact that Canadians are always asking, “Who are we?” is who we are, Gross says. We keep unfolding and adding to ourselves, unlike the Americans who have to keep returning to one document “like it’s a sacred liturgy.” Canadians don’t have to refer back to anything, to decide who we are, and he sees that as a strength rather than a weakness.

Yet there is no doubt the entertainment industry is in trouble. In fact, it’s in the midst of total collapse, caused by the “perfect storm” of Internet + world economic crisis. The world can support about 300 movies a year, yet about 3000 get made annually. Because of this glut, few films make back what it costs to produce them. Passchendaele grossed about $5 million, yet the average take for an independent film is a mere $500,000. Of the major studios, Warner Bros. is pulling back, to make only eight movies per year, and Hollywood is “imploding.”

Gross predicts that 1/3 of everyone working in the industry will be out of a job by March 1st.

And what of the television industry? Advertising revenue is dying, while production costs keep rising. The recent series, Deadwood, cost $5 million per hour. There is simply no revenue to support that. NBC, says Gross bluntly, “is finished.” In fact, the major networks like CBS, NBC, and ABC as we know them will disappear, and become “brands” more than anything else. There’s enormous upheaval coming — with lots of casualties — while people try to figure out how to “monetize the Internet” as everything moves there.

Yet Gross is not entirely pessimistic. Films will still be made, and he’s creating a mini-series right now. He doesn’t quite know how the current chaos will be reshaped, but he believes the students in the audience last night will do much different things than he has. They will be the ones who create the new entertainment industry.

One thing we can count on, however, in the midst of this uncertainty. Whichever way the industry goes in Canada, Paul Gross will be at the forefront, fighting for its survival and continued support. That fact makes the coming changes at least slightly less scary.

[Note: For another account, more of a transcript, including so much that I couldn’t fit into my own piece, check out starfishchick on LiveJournal. (I believe you need to be signed in to LJ to see her photos in that post.) She captures more of how hilarious Paul Gross really is.]