Spring fever

We’re having an early spring here in southern Ontario — a relief after what seemed like a long, dreary winter lurking around our homes. Over the past few days I’ve been out documenting any signs of spring, and for everyone who needs a virtual dose of sunshine and fresh air, here are some of the treasures I came across.

Trees on a local farm are coming into bud, creating a reddish haze in the orchard
At a large pond, dried reeds languish in the dark water
A Canada Goose keeps lookout atop its log island
Plump red berries hang temptingly atop a waterside shrub
These Bufflehead ducks were hard to take a clear photo of — they really zipped around the pond (male with a full white ‘shawl’ top left, two females with white cheeks lower right)
The bushy head of one of our most invasive weeds, Phragmites, glows in the afternoon sun
Painted Turtles warm up on a log
Fishing ducks
Tiny grape hyacinths have started spreading at our local botanical garden
Beautiful white crocuses
A lone clump of daffodils, my favourite flower
A bee making the most of some Coltsfoot
A rainbow of crocuses carpets the ground beneath a wide tree still waiting for its leaves
I loved these pretty Variegated Crocuses
Paved pathways wandering through the grounds wait for the return of visitors…
…as does this shady rustic gazebo
Vivid school of goldfish in one of the ponds
Clusters of snowdrops popping out
Fuzzy catkins bursting out all over some of the trees
Even a few tulips breaking ground

All photographs are by me and cannot be used without my permission.

Ice blue and shamrock green

Apologies – I completely lost track of time this week and thought today was still Thursday! It must have been the giddiness from the unusually fine weather we’ve had this week: shining sun and temperatures like a warm spring day, which, coupled with a lessening of our Covid restrictions, drew a lot of people out of their homes into the fresh air.

I headed over to the Welland Canal, the system of locks which transport ships between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. Lake Erie is at a higher altitude – 326 feet higher – than Lake Ontario, so beginning in 1824 a series of versions of the canal system were built over the next 153 years into the one we have today.

Residents have a love-hate relationship with the Canal. It’s a remarkable feat of engineering that holds up road traffic numerous times every day during shipping season as the bridges are raised to let boats through.

The ships passing up and down the canal are a continual attraction, though, and the waterway is part of the St. Lawrence Seaway system, which employs a lot of people.

Over the winter, from January to March the canal is almost completely emptied of water, which usually freezes up and would be impassable to ships for several months.

This year the canal is set to reopen on March 31, but I was surprised to find that it’s already been filled back up – this past weekend there was still only a shallow trickle of water along the bottom of the deep canal.

At most of the locks you can park and walk around to get a good close-up view of the system of gates that close to allow each lock to either fill with water to raise a ship upward toward Lake Erie, or slowly empty to lower a ship downward toward Lake Ontario.

There are ships in the Port Weller Dry Docks getting their winter repairs, and tug boats waiting to guide them out when ready.

Despite temperatures of 21 degrees Celsius and bright sunshine, a thin skin of ice still floated on much of the canal water, raised upward itself as the gates began allowing water to refill the canal like a series of overflowing cups from Lake Erie.

A trail runs along the canal for walkers and bikers, and ship enthusiasts, with handy benches for rest stops or just ship-watching.

On this flat section between Locks 2 and 1, the ice blanket was extensive, but a wide crack had opened up and zigzagged almost all the way from one bank to the other, and some Canada Geese were resting at the edge. It was a great photo op that I had to stop for.

Chunks of ice also crusted the rocky banks, glittering in the warm sun.

It was a great afternoon outing, and then it was time to hit the grocers for supplies to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day next week.

Although I have no Irish background at all, each March this holiday promises that spring is just around the corner. I’m not into the green beer type of celebration, but the Irish love good food and March 17th is another great excuse to cook up something delicious.

What did we actually eat when we were in Ireland two years ago?

It rains a lot in Ireland, and I believe there’s a direct correlation between the weather and the comfort factor of Irish food.

Irish Stew, hearty and filling, is ubiquitous, and also seafood, and fish pies stuffed with a melange that often includes salmon under a topping of mashed potato.

A filling bowl of Irish lamb stew

You can find all the classics in the restaurants, from soda bread (delicious with fresh creamy Irish butter, by the way) to boxty and colcannon, but other cuisines are well represented. One evening in the Temple Bar district of London I had a fabulous Mediterranean chicken dish with lemon and olives, and in Killarney we had great pizzas at a pizza-and-ale joint just across the street from our hotel.

Breakfasts are filling, from scrambled eggs, bacon, roasted potatoes, baked beans, grilled mushrooms and tomatoes, and toasts to rich bowls of oatmeal strewn with fresh fruit.

Barry’s Tea seems to be the tea of choice for a lot of restaurants, and the Irish make a pretty stiff cuppa indeed – a pot for two people usually held three teabags! Barry’s is hard to find around here, though, so typically at home we’ll drink Twinings Irish Breakfast tea.

Sweets in all their forms are really popular and just the thing to shore up your energy after a few hours of exploring. I had one of the best cinnamon buns ever from a roadside food truck as we zipped from the north to the west coast. Lunch was several hours away as we stumbled upon the little truck miles from anywhere, so we bought cups of tea and buns and perched on a picnic table enjoying the view while we refreshed.

Individual lemon meringue tarts are a common sight, and also Banoffee pie, trifles topped with whipped cream and bread pudding with sauce.

Rich slice of Banoffee pie

So if you’re of a mind to have some cozy Irish food on what, for us, will be a chill and cloudy day just on the cusp of Spring, you have lots of choices to evoke a trip to the Emerald Isle. In fact, I’m making myself hungry just completing this blog. Slainte! 😊

All photos on this site were taken by me (unless otherwise indicated), and may not be copied or used without my permission.

A spring flower refurb

Outside our house the world around is drab and brown still, although the snows have melted and we’re seeing some scraggly grass again. At least the sun has been shining, but this winter has felt extra-long being cooped up at home.

Don’t me wrong, our Covid cases have dropped dramatically since we went into lock-down and I feel it’s been well worth the effort. The number of people who’ve suffered with the illness because so many others couldn’t be bothered to take preventive measures is truly heart-breaking.

Hopefully we’ll continue to make progress, even though all our stores have been allowed to reopen at reduced capacity.

in the meantime, bringing some fresh flowers into your home can add some much needed cheer. If you’ve never created your own arrangement from some inexpensive cut flowers that you can buy at any grocery store, here’s how to do it.

I started with a fading Valentine’s arrangement my hubby gave me. Usually he buys me a dozen long-stemmed yellow roses, which are my favourite flower, but this year I asked for a garden-style arrangement to make our house feel a little like Spring. This is what it looked like when it originally arrived:

It lasted for quite a while, but eventually the floral parts began to wither, leaving a scattering of deep pink carnations and some greenery that still looked good. My first refurb was with three bundles from the grocery store: daffodils, a bunch of pretty pale green carnations ruffled with purple, and a thick bundle of thin-leaved eucalyptus that you can see frothing all over the arrangement-in-progress below.

The original arrangement was one-sided, perfect for our foyer table, so I kept it that way. I moved some daffodils around after this to balance the colours evenly throughout, creating a loose informal look.

The daffodils were a mistake, though: in the stiff wet-foam that the florist had used, I had a lot of trouble inserting the delicate stems of these flowers well enough for them to draw water, and they didn’t last very long. The florist had used a piece of foam that rose over the top edge of the ceramic container, with a very tight fit, so I could only pour in bits of water from the top to avoid dribbling all over the table. (When I make my own arrangements, I like to recess the foam below the top of the water receptacle, so that I can pour in more water to easily soak the foam without overflowing.)

Important tip: If you’re making an arrangement from scratch, you’ll need to buy ‘wet foam’, called Oasis, to stick your stems into and to hold them in place. There’s another type of foam, called Sahara, that will not absorb water no matter how much you try — it’s only used for dried/silk arrangements. You can find Oasis at craft stores like Michaels.

The pink carnations also finally reached their limit, so it was time for another change of dress anyway. Back at the grocery store I spotted this pretty pre-made bundle, and I particularly loved the large lavender-tinged chrysanthemum.

Here’s how I incorporated the new flowers:

1) I removed all the spent flowers and greenery. I love big bundles like the one above because they include a nice amount of greenery to fill in the empty spaces and background of your arrangement. We’ll get to those in a minute. Here’s the stripped down arrangement, with a smattering of greenery and all of the green and purple carnations. I began working with the carnations in place, and then tweaked them as I started filling in the new materials.

2) In the same photo, I’m measuring the height of what will be the focal point — the single large lavender-tipped chrysanthemum — against the existing arrangement. You can always shorten a stem further, but if you cut it too short to begin with there’s no going back to lengthen it. I do the same with each stem of flowers or greenery as I work my way through them.

You want to give the focal point pride-of-place in the arrangement, of course. I tend to like my focal points on the right lower side of an arrangement, whether it’s a one-sided arrangement or rounded. I’m not an expert arranger by any means — this is just a style I’ve picked up from watching how the florists do it.

You’ll need to trim all of your stems — they need to be re-cut before they’re added to your arrangement. Scissors will work, but they can pinch the new cut end a little; I use a little guillotine-style cutter that I bought so long ago I can’t recall where I bought it. It has a razor-style blade inside a slot where you insert the stem and make a perfectly clean, slanted cut.

3) You’ll also need to trim most of the leaves below any flowers, as they’ll only clutter up your arrangement. Remove any that are damaged already or are too close to where you’ll be inserting the stem into the foam. In the next stem I positioned, the purple alstromeria, you can see in the photo below where several lower leaves were already crumpled and wouldn’t have helped the arrangement.

4) In the next photo you can see where I placed the alstromeria, close to the chrysanthemum so that the purple colours and the different petal shapes could compliment each other. This placement wasn’t fixed in stone; as I added more stems I ended up repositioning the alstromeria a small amount. Don’t worry about making your arrangement perfect as you go; before the end you’ll look at it from different angles and likely tweak it a bit for the final version.

5) I like arrangements to be three-dimensional — I don’t want my arrangements to look like the floral equivalent of a bowl-shaped haircut. So even for multiple stems of the same flower, or the same greenery, I like to cut them in different lengths so they have some depth within the arrangement.

My bundle of flowers included several stems of a common florist greenery called salal. It has medium to large-sized deep green leaves that set off the flowers beautifully. There are clusters of branches on one main stem, which you can separate and cut to a variety of lengths, as I did below. In a one-sided arrangement, typically taller stems go in the back and the height shortens as you get to the front, so you’ll want at least three lengths to fill in your arrangements.

As you position the different elements, consider how different textures, shapes and colours offset each other. For example, a frothy sort of flower like the smaller white chrysanthemums in clusters below will contrast well with the distinctive leaves of the salal, while the many-leaved thin eucalyptus in a medium green serves as a great filler for empty spots and to dangle over the edges of the arrangement for a more informal look. I also like to let the greenery, and sometimes even the flowers, dangle over the edge of the container to break the container’s visual boundary. A more formal arrangement would keep the flowers and greenery more tucked neatly in.

6) Once you’ve placed almost everything, you may find that you have something large like a palm leaf left — its size and distinctive shape is meant to become the dramatic backdrop of the arrangement. There was also only one fern stem, so I placed that at the back as well, although for a more triangular arrangement I could have tucked it in on the bottom right.

7) Finally it’s time to walk around your arrangement and look for any spots that are too bare, or where the several stems of some flowers (like the green carnations) haven’t been evenly distributed, or where you might want to adjust the colour palette. Don’t fuss too much — the net effect is to make you smile, not to win a floral award. The more of these you do, the better eye you’ll develop for placing things. You can also learn a lot by looking at online photos of arrangements on a florist’s website: how they cluster and contrast deep and light colours, how they create the overall shape of the arrangement (round, triangular, rectangular, etc.) and whether they incorporate a single dramatic focal point as opposed to a less formal look.

Here’s the almost-finished version of my arrangement. I ended up moving the tall green carnation on the far side over to the left to balance the overall shape.

I hope you embark on a little floral adventure of your own. No one can beat Mother Nature for sheer beauty, and to bring some of her artwork into your home can lift your spirits during these times. Once you’ve learned how to do it, you can make yourself a pretty flower arrangement any time you feel like it, at far lest cost than buying one from a florist if you need to be frugal. For special occasions though, it’s a wonderful surprise to have your doorbell ring and open the door to find a beautiful arrangement waiting for you, fresh from the florist and already put together so you only have to decide where to show it off the best 🙂

Frosty wonderland

A little armchair travel for those of you who may have never had the opportunity to see this: Niagara Falls, partially frozen into spectacular blue-tinged stalactites amidst cold blue tumbles of water raising billows of white mist.

The Niagara River doesn’t always freeze — in fact, it has never completely frozen over, but it came extremely close in 1848 when an ice jam blocked up the falls, except for a few trickles, for almost two days.

In 1912 the American Falls froze solid, which must have been an amazing sight. This year, they look like a scene out of Nordic mythology.

Our Canadian Falls are still flowing freely, except for rivulets through the rock layers that have frozen on their downward drop.

Between the two Falls, more gigantic blue icicles dot the rock layers. The Falls formed when the last ice sheet retreated 10,000 years ago, but the resulting gorge had a harder top layer of limestone and dolomite over softer shale, and you can see flows of water that have worked their way through only to be petrified before they finished their journey.

Just below the Canadian Falls, chunks of ice have piled on exposed brown rock to look like sugar crystals sprinkled on chocolate chunks.

As the river continues on its way below the Falls toward Lake Erie, this winter it’s a cold steely-blue band on which we were surprised to see someone out on a boat.

Our closest groundhog has predicted an early Spring, but in the meantime we’ve been treated to a beautiful winter wonderland that’s become rare as our globe heats up. I don’t know when we’ll see it again.

Celebrating life

Well, if you’re reading this post you’ve survived 2020, and I deeply hope all of the people you care about have as well. There were parts of the past year during which we may have forgotten to celebrate being alive – parts where we may have felt anxiety, frustration, even pain.

But here we are, on the cusp of what we all hope will be a much better year. I’ve always advocated looking forward, not backward. We can’t change what’s passed, although we can learn from it and enjoy memories of the good times. I believe that, on our journey through life, we should create as many good memories as we can, to balance out the bad memories that come along without our choosing them. We can choose to be a good person, to be our own person, to laugh as much as possible, and to do the right thing.

We can choose to make the best of things instead of the worst, or at least to give it our best shot.

My late mother-in-law travelled with my hubby and I on several occasions, and she used to remark on our capacity to stay calm when things didn’t go according to plan. Part of that ability developed through long experience – something always happens on our trips, and often more than once – but mainly we’ve always tried to make the best of things, because that just feels much better than the down side.

Life is pretty amusing if you’re willing to look at it that way. Case in point, and the reason for the photo for this week’s blog: our first trip together involving flights, the year we got engaged. We flew to visit friends in California, over the Christmas break because I was still in university and that was the only time we could go together.

I was excited about flying on a big plane, but nervous and a little queasy the entire time. The snow storm we had in Ontario the day before our departure hadn’t boosted my confidence either. But four and a half hours later we were landing in LAX on a balmy night, and not long after that our friends pulled into the driveway of their tile-roofed Spanish-style bungalow in Santa Monica.

The next morning the hazy air smelled of the sea and of eucalyptus. I spent the week falling in love with California, from the fresh oranges on the tree in our hosts’ back yard to the famous places like the Santa Monica Pier, Hollywood and Disneyland. My first sight of palm trees, lining the street our friends’ lived on, and of the ocean, crashing in rolling waves onto the wide sand beaches just like it did in all the movies, was absolutely thrilling – this was the first time I’d been outside my home province. We passed swathes of red poinsettia growing wild on hillsides, not confined to little plastic pots.

We had a late New Year’s Eve, and about two hours of sleep before we all got up early to take a bus to Pasadena to see the Rose Parade. I also had a lingering case of strep throat, but I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to see my favourite parade live and in person! I remember waiting impatiently in line on the grounds of Pepperdine University to get on the bus, and climbing up the bleachers lining the parade route with my 35mm camera at the ready. It was chilly at 8am, but the sun was shining and across the street the mountains surrounding the city were lavender in the morning haze.

The parade was wonderful and the floats even more glorious when you’re sitting just a few feet away from them. When the Rose Parade returns in the future, I recommend it for your bucket list.

Since that day it’s become an annual ritual in our home to get up on January 1st, put on the kettle and a bit of breakfast, and watch the year’s beautiful flowered floats in their bright colours wind past the television cameras.

But on that day, by the time the parade finished, our short night and my illness caught up with me on the seemingly interminable bus ride back to Pepperdine; I fell asleep before the bus even left Pasadena and woke up just long enough to get in our hosts’ car to return to their house. Everyone else camped out in the living room to watch the Rose Bowl, but I made a beeline for the bed, stripped down, crawled in, and promptly fell fast asleep.

I remember waking up at one point with the bed shaking, and thinking groggily ‘Oh, we must be having an earthquake’, but falling fast asleep again – which tells you how out of it I was feeling. Until about a minute later when my hubby – then fiancé – burst through the door yelling, “Get up, we’re having an earthquake!!!”, with everyone else close behind him.

The problem was that I hadn’t bothered to put pyjamas on, so while he was urging me to get up I was clutching the sheets up to my chin and trying to point out to him that I couldn’t move until everyone left the room. After some confusion around that, I finally got the opportunity to get dressed without an audience, and joined the crew in the living room.

Looking back, it was a hilarious, if completely anxiety-riddled day. The original quake was 4.6 on the Richter Scale, so nothing serious, but while you’re in the middle of it you have no idea of how it’s going to end. Fed by Hollywood, I was having visions of the earth splitting open and houses falling in.

Some of the aftershocks were worse than the quake. One felt a giant had come along and kicked the house – the whole building just gave a sudden jerk. Others trickled along, evidenced only by the ornaments jiggling slightly on our hosts’ Christmas tree. At a couple of points our hosts ran over to their china cabinet to keep it from toppling over. Another aftershock caught me in the bathroom, with my hubby pounding on the door for me to come out while I tried to explain that I was “in the middle of something at the moment”.

An announcement about the quake was aired right in the middle of the football game, so we had to call home and reassure everyone that we were okay. That would be the first of many such calls over the years.

By dinnertime, after several hours of ongoing aftershocks, my hubby and I were pretty twitchy, so our friends decided to distract us by taking us to Olvera Street, the very first street of what would one day become the sprawling city of Los Angeles. At that time Olvera wasn’t as structured as it is today, but I remember lots of stalls selling colourful decorations and food, and we had our first taste of Mexican cuisine. We had enchiladas that were an explosion of flavour in our mouths, and we craved them intensely for years after we got home because we simply couldn’t get it anywhere around here.

The earthquake spooked us so badly that it took us thirteen years to return to California, but we’ve been there many times since, enjoying the sun, the scents, and the food! We laugh about that first trip a lot; it was a wonderful introduction to travel for me, despite the quake. When I learned that there wouldn’t be an actual Rose Parade this New Year’s Day, I had to run out and get flowers to make our own small homage to the parade and to California – the end result is what you see in the photo. It also celebrates Nature’s artistic mastery, which will be the theme of many of my blogs in 2021 because that’s something we need to preserve.

We hope to get back to California again one day, to Africa again, and to all the other places we still dream about, but in the meantime we will enjoy life to the fullest, even if it’s via small floral celebrations perched on our coffee table. I think that’s a good way to live.