By Peter William Gribble
As a former easterner, born in Montreal, raised in the Ottawa area during high school, winter was something to endure, baited with Christmas and New Years as mid-season inducements to survive. Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing were fun in their bracing way, but not when snowstorms buried houses to the rooftops as they did one year.
Of course, I was younger then. Nowadays, winter devolves to an aging person’s pursuit of reliable heat sources.
Moving to the West Coast was a near tropical marvel and I dreamed of my first snow-free winter. Twenty five plus years later and I’m still waiting. Even living in the occasionally Zone 9a microclimate along the New Westminster edges of the Fraser River did not spare me a March arctic outflow’s blessings of a few widely separated flakes. Despite the deprivation, I really don’t want my first green winter dependent on global warming.
Yet I truly enjoy the holiday season: the stores, the shopping, the decorations, houses, condos and apartments competitive with lights, seeing old friends and making new ones, the conviviality, the festive air, the old Christmas movies … but not so much the Christmas carols ho-ho-ho-ing since mid-November.
By some perversity – maybe due to thwarted tropical hopes – my tree decorations are themed to snowflakes and icicles. ‘It looks cool and lovely,’ as Dame Edna Everage would say, but she was from Australia – as good a place as any for a tropical Christmas.
Yet where would you get a live Christmas tree with that wonderful pine, fir, or spruce scent? Where else but here in Canada could you rely on the weather to provide you with the chilly excuse to down a fortifying, rum-enhanced eggnog or two? Or to buy the quintessential and very winter dependent Canadian flavouring: maple syrup! Or wear toques, hoodies and warm woollen mittens?
Live potted Christmas trees in a wide range of sizes started arriving at garden centres at the beginning of November. Cute, little, robust Alberta spruces and others barely 14” high are available for even the tiniest balcony at only $6.99. Outdoors is the best place for these ‘Living Trees,’ which are usually conifers regardless of size. If you want them in the house for Christmas, adapt them slowly to the warm indoor change (i.e.: keep them in an unheated garage or close to the house outside for a few days.) More than ten days inside our hothouse interiors will confuse them into thinking the global warming tipover has occurred. Watch the watering, they dry fast. When the ten days are up, reintroduce your wee trees back to the balcony or garden in the same gradual manner.
Wreaths and fresh cut greens – holly, hemlock, fir, cedar and pine – showed up a week later. Their combined, transfixing fragrance stops you in your tracks – it feels like inhaling Vitamin C or something deeply restorative. The cut trees (mostly Douglas firs – Charlie Brown trees) also appeared mid-November. Everything was in place before December was out of the starting date. I heard my first Christmas carols November 18th, a day that will live in infamy.
Grinch trees are popular. Usually made with the yellowy-green California Cypress ‘Wilma,’ it has a fresh, lemony, citrus scent when you pinch the foliage. They’re tightly corseted with ribbon to curve the top half of the young flexible trunk downwards then hung with a single oversized ball at the tip. If you are kind-hearted enough to rescue them from this Holiday bondage, release it and pot it up in a larger pot and slowly acclimatize it outdoors. You may need to stake it for a few months to convince it, it is allowed to grow upright again. They can grow quickly, require occasional light pruning and are adaptable to part sun and shade conditions.
For the more traditionally minded, here is a quick guide to cut Christmas trees. Yes, the prices have gone up yet again, but the Christmas tree industry – somehow repugnant to think of it as an ‘industry’– goes through a complicated, multi-component cycle of about ten years. An expert friend of mine says the prices should ease downwards again over the next few years.
The well-behaved Noble fir has storied layered branches, a pleasant scent and is considered one of the best for needle retention. Their colour can vary from a deep green to a more bluey-green and they come in sizes from 2 to 10 feet. The West Coast classic is the closely pruned Cultured Douglas Fir and comes in sizes from 4 to 9 feet and has a dense, full, beautifully shaped canopy and deep green needles. Natural Douglas Firs, pruned with a lighter touch, have a more open structure and come in sizes ranging from the 2-3 foot Charlie Browns to soaring giants of 9 to 11 feet. The Fraser Fir, identified by the silvery underside of the needles, grows more narrowly thereby more suited for the smaller space with the needles staying reasonably well. They come in 5 to 9 feet sizes. The Nordmann, sometimes thought as the Rolls Royce of Christmas trees, holds its evenly spaced storied branches with an insouciance combining the best characteristics of the Douglas and the Noble. It holds its soft deep-green needles exceptionally well and comes in heights ranging from 3 to 8 feet. For classic Christmas tree shape and a wonderful scent with a strong citrus note, the Grand Fir is a glorious specimen ranging from 6 to 9 feet.
And last, using retail-correct terminology, are the ‘everlasting’ trees – formerly known as artificial, fake or plastic trees. These days the good ones are very convincing. Perfectly shaped, convenient, long lasting, they are easy to store from season to season. Needle retention is measured in years not weeks. And if you miss the sweet clean scent of a fresh cut tree, there are essential oils to bring it back – although to these ancient nostrils the smells are seldom convincing. Give me the resinous, gummy delights of true pine sap any day with a rum and eggnog on the side!
As for presents for gardeners …
Armchair gardening comes into its own this time of year. Old gardening books come off the shelf and are savoured with chocolate truffles and sips of eggnog as the pages slowly turn. Any book by Penelope Hobhouse, anything with the inspiring photographs by Marina Schinz, Tony Lord provides English grandeur, Dr. D. G. Hessayon is reliable with practical advice, there’s never any lack of choice. Second hand bookstores will have them inexpensively – go soon, second hand bookstores are on the endangered species list. Two Westcoast publications to look for are Bill Terry’s fascinating Blue Heaven: Encounters with the Blue Poppy (TouchWood Editions, 2009) and Carolyn Herriot’s The Zero-Mile Diet: A Year-Round Guide to Growing Organic Food. (Harbour Publishing Co. Ltd., 2010.)
If your armchair is particularly comfortable, hunt down the current Winter 2018 ‘Double Issue!’ of Mother Earth News Collectors Series about Self-Sufficiency and Country Skills. The magazine is a fascinating read and a great stocking stuffer for the wannabe farmer/gardener in your life – if not yourself.
While you are snuggled up, remember the first person who awakened your interest in gardening? Gave you your first plant? Keep the momentum going and pass it along to the kids and grandkids this holiday season with a book. Plant seeds for the gardening instinct in the next generation.
Katie Smith Milway wrote “The Good Gardener: How One Family Went From Hunger to Having Enough” (2010), illustrated by Sylvie Daigneault. Her other book “One Hen: How One Small Loan Made a Big Difference” (2008), illustrated by Eugenie Fernandes, which teaches children about making a difference. Both are published by Kids Can Press and aimed for ages seven and up.
Another classic I’ve mentioned before is Jean Giono’s “The Man Who Planted Trees”, illustrations by Frédéric Back (who won an Oscar in 1989 for the animated film) and translated by Jean Roberts. A very special classic and winner of the American Book Award is “Miss Rumphius”, a story and illustrations by Barbara Cooney (1982 Viking, republished by Puffin, 1985.) It’s inexpensive and readily available online. It’s recommended for the three to eight age range but it is universal. It’s about Alice Rumphius, a little girl inspired by her grandfather to do three things: travel to faraway lands, live by the sea and – most difficult of all – ‘do something to make the world more beautiful.’ She accomplishes the first two but it is late in life after a long illness when Alice finally understands what her third thing will be. The discovery completely revitalizes her.
So it is with gardeners, we try to make the world more beautiful … and often succeed despite our stewardship being restricted to one of the world’s tinier corners: our balconies.
As December 25 approaches, carols are reduced to repetitive background mantras. One of them, ‘Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow … ’ erodes my green, tropical longings and invites the thought, I’m at the stage in life when I can say with qualified resignation, ‘Oh, why not.’
But perhaps it’s only the eggnog talking …