My alternative to Christmas in July

The first hole of Royal Portrush, where the Open Championship was held in 2019, on a typical damp, chilly day

My hubby and I were in New Zealand on October 31 several years ago, and it was one of the oddest Halloweens we’ve ever spent.

October is a Spring month below the equator, and flowers were blooming all over the place – lots of white or pink flowering trees on front lawns. There wasn’t a pumpkin or anything orange in sight.

In Christchurch on the South Island, our overnight stop, Halloween was pretty much a wash. There were a couple of perfunctory Halloween events, which were sold out, but nothing public was decorated – no glowing jack-o’-lanterns on front porches, or corn stalks, or string lights, or anything for us to drive around and enjoy.

The local grocery store had some cute themed signs at the entrance, but it soon became obvious that trick-or-treating is not a thing in New Zealand: we couldn’t find a single package of Halloween candy on the shelves. Rather dejected, we bought a box of marshmallow cookies and went back to our Top 10 holiday park unit to watch vintage horror movies on the telly.

In the New Zealand media there was some talk of moving their Halloween celebration to the end of March, and we could see their point: at least there would be cool weather, fall colours, and the opportunity to grow pumpkins for pie and jack-o’-lanterns. I’ve never seen anything come of that, however.

Christmas, too, is a little topsy-turvy ‘down under’, taking place smack dab in the middle of their summer, when it’s hot and people go to the beach. So apparently it’s quite a thing in both Australia and New Zealand to celebrate “Christmas in July”, taking advantage of their cold season, and possibly even some snow, to celebrate a second time more atmospherically.

We’ve been to a ‘Christmas in July’ party here at home, where the host strung Christmas lights along the pool fence and served barbecued turkey, but it’s never really caught on in Canada – except on the Hallmark television channel.

My hubby and I have our own version of Christmas in July, and it’s called Open Week – as in the July week when the Open Golf Championship is played somewhere in Great Britain (it rotates through several different courses in England, Scotland and Ireland).

I love Open Week – this very week, as a matter of fact – for several reasons.

Number One is watching the golfers battle some of the nastiest golf weather on the planet. It’s rare to see the sun out during the tournament; more often than not it’s chilly and overcast. Sometimes there are gale-force winds and pouring rain.

I enjoy this because our summers here in southern Ontario are usually unbearably hot and humid, so I spend Open Week sheltered inside the house, not with a fire in the hearth but with the air conditioning blowing, and pretending that I’m in the cool damp of the tournament.

Number Two is the golf. The Open is always full of drama – at least in part because of the wild weather, but also because the courses are challenging and the players can’t just pound it down the fairway. They have to use every ounce of strategy they can devise, often trying to rescue themselves from a pot bunker that’s deeper than they are tall or thick fescue grass that will ensnare their club as they try to hit out of it, all of which makes for great golf.

Number Three is the British food that I make all week long. This is where the ‘Christmas in July’ part comes in.

There aren’t really any decorations to put out, but there’s slow-cooked oatmeal with cream and brown sugar, along with a slice of buttered toast and a cup of tea, for breakfast. For afternoon tea there might be fresh-baked scones with crème fraiche and strawberry jam, shortbread cookies, Eccles cakes and Hobnobs (round oatmeal wafers with a top coat of chocolate). At dinner, while we watch a replay of the day’s rounds (which were played in the wee hours of the morning by Eastern Standard Time), we’ll have hearty food that makes me think of cold weather and my favourite season, Autumn – maybe Shepherd’s Pie, a good curry dish, Sausage and Cider Stew, and roast beef with Yorkshire pudding.

Just like at Christmas, we enjoy a little license to have extra desserts – Raspberry Trifle, or perhaps layered deep-chocolate cake with thick chocolate frosting, sliced and sitting in a creamy pool of pouring custard. I could be an honorary Brit just based on our shared love of sweets, of which they make some of the best.

When you combine the 149-year history, tradition and atmosphere of the tournament with great food and a little break from our day-to-day lives, you get something special. If you’re a non-golfer, it might not be your idea of an alternative to Christmas in July. But if you need a break from a long hot summer, find some excuse to chill out for a week, literally and mentally. And if you’re one of the people who love summer and everything about it, well, to each their own 😉

You touch many lives

Life is precious, and fleeting. If nothing else, the pandemic has made that really clear.

If you’re a regular reader, you’re aware that I recently lost a family member, through the saddest of circumstances — this person had been in pain for quite some time but, for a reason known only to them, refused to see a doctor. Maybe it was fear. When they finally did seek help, their cancer was already at stage 4 and there was no way of stopping its spread. From diagnosis to loss was only a matter of weeks.

We can only guess how different the outcome might have been if treatment had begun earlier.

I saw the same scenario play out a few other times when I was working as a pharmacy technician. Heartbroken family members would come in the store to share their pain and anger with us.

None of us ever want to hear the “C” word, or the name of any other dreaded illness, but many people have survived by getting treatment as soon as possible.

All of our choices have consequences, and not just for us alone. When we avoid treatment for an illness — or, in our current situation, refuse to get a vaccine to prevent the most serious versions of the Covid-19 virus and its variants — it impacts our loved ones and friends as well, and potentially thousands of other people.

Every day that we get to spend with those who care about us is a gift, so let’s not squander it. Be kind, be considerate, be diligent about your health. Enjoy the world around us and help take care of it. Help make the world a better place, and impact someone else’s life in a positive way. Then, when you draw your final breath, you’ll know that you’ve lived life well, and that’s all we can ask.

Blossom time in Niagara

This week we’re celebrating blossom time in the Niagara region, which is Nature’s sign that spring has truly arrived.

Every May fruit trees all over our farmlands cover themselves in gorgeous flowers. The blossoms don’t last long, and the timing is tricky if you want to see them — like fall colours, it’s all dependent on the weather. This year, with plenty of mild weather, sunshine and rain showers, the blossoms have arrived right on cue, and I thought I’d share them with everyone who can’t come and see them in person during the continuation of the pandemic.

Our sublime May light makes the blossoms look almost incandescent — rows of glowing colours in orchards, lining our parks, and dotting our city streets.

In the photo below, cherry trees line the fringes of a historic site called McFarland House, built in 1800, and the thick showers of pink blossoms contrast strikingly with nearby red maples also flaunting their best spring outfits.

The resplendent clusters of pink flowers pop against the trees’ craggy grey-green bark.

I believe these are Japanese flowering cherries; here’s a closeup of the blossoms and new leaves for anyone who might have a better idea than I do.

It’s not just fruit trees that are livening up our landscapes; here at Queenston Heights in Niagara Falls, vibrant tulips are showing off their best colours. This historic site, which commemorates the first major battle in the War of 1812, is also the southern terminus of the Bruce Trail, the famous hiking trail that runs for 900km (about 560 mi) from Niagara northward to Tobermory on the shores of Georgian Bay.

I’m partial to variegated tulips…

…but all of the flowers were putting on a grand display of their lush petals and intriguing variety of reproductive configurations.

Niagara Falls also boasts quite a pretty 10-acre lilac garden.

The garden is free to visit; you can spend an entire morning or afternoon there, inhaling the wonderful perfume of the flowers…

,,,and admiring the different varieties. There were a handful of us getting some outdoor exercise on a lovely day, although rain was on the horizon.

I loved the pretty variegated leaves on this shrub.

Turning back toward Niagara-on-the-Lake, I found numerous pink-strewn cherry orchards…

and white apple orchards lining the roads.

Clusters of white apple blossoms were bursting out on all the branches, their sprays of delicate pistils making them look like lace.

Even the other trees are sporting froths of bright new leaves. I love this time of year, when the air is fresh and invigorating, and the sunshine begins keeping its promises.

Heading to the Fonthill area, numerous farms are studded with the stubble of last year’s corn stalks.

Even though the region is starting to drown under the weight of wineries (over seventy in about 700 square miles), if you take the time to wander the back roads you can still find pretty farms tucked away.

In fact, a leisurely wander is the best way to see the region’s spring beauty when you have a chance. You might even spot some of the area’s wild turkeys searching a field for lunch. There used to be one that patrolled an intersection near where I live, stopping traffic for the better part of an hour as it strutted up and down the road. (If you’ve never seen one for yourself, they’re huge birds, up to four feet tall and rather ornery.)

Hiking trails abound; this section of the Bruce Trail is twinned with a trail project in South Africa, surprisingly enough.

Even here the trails were luminous in the afternoon light.

At some time in the future, when life has returned more closely to normal, you may want to visit the Niagara Region in the springtime, when it shows all of its prettiest colours. In the meantime, I hope you have some lovely areas to explore and let Nature work her magic.

Less heel-dragging, more doing the right thing

St. Catharines, Ontario 7 Day Weather Forecast – The Weather Network

Yesterday, April 7th, was World Health Day, and I think we can all agree that this initiative has never been more topical. More than a year after the first Covid cases were recognized, the world is still struggling to turn the tide.

Here in Ontario we’ve all been put back under a stay-at-home law as the province grapples with the biggest wave of infections so far. I think I can speak for all of us who’ve been diligently following the rules in saying that we’re getting pretty frustrated. So it’s time to face facts, even if we may not like them:

A) Vaccines prevent disease and save lives. You have only to look at the freedom we have now from diseases that once decimated the population — smallpox, diphtheria, polio, tuberculosis — to understand the truth of this.

B) Preventative measures — wearing mask, washing hands and keeping our distance — prevent infection and save lives. If you or anyone you know ever had surgery, you can be grateful that the OR doctors and nurses followed this practice.

Granted, our governments have not done the best job with this situation, but as citizens we also have to do our part, or this pandemic will just drag on and on and on, as it has already.

Yesterday, I went for a drive to take advantage of the last free day we’ll have for the next four weeks. A lot of other people had the same idea, and I was happy to see everyone following the rules!

First I visited my favourite garden centre to pick up some planters of flowers; if my hubby and I are going to be sitting around the house, at least we can look at something cheerful. The centre was full of plants that needed a good home.

Although I don’t plant geraniums, this lovely Martha Washington was a temptation.

After some exploration of side roads I haven’t taken before, I found myself back at my favourite relaxation spot, our local botanical garden, to see what changes have taken place in the past couple of weeks.

Masses of daffodils have been spreading all over the place…

,,, and the trees all have leaves bursting out.

I spotted a Downy Woodpecker searching for lunch on one of the trees…

… and a pretty Mourning Cloak butterfly that was kind enough to perch on a plant label long enough for me to get a photo.

Large clumps of Glory of the Snow had also popped out all over.

My hubby and I will continue to make the best of things, and to everyone getting frustrated, please stay strong and take care. If you develop symptoms, stay home and avoid spreading. And don’t believe what you read on social media; all medications have a risk of an adverse reaction, but those are rare. As I mentioned in a previous post, my hubby and I have had numerous vaccinations against all the diseases in less-fortunate countries that we no longer have to worry about in North America, and those vaccines have allowed us to travel safely all over the world without becoming ill. If you’re interested, read this excellent and very blunt article about vaccines vs. the fear-mongerers, and do the right thing, for the good of your own health, your family’s, and all the rest of the people you know.

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 🙂

Things to do when you’re snowed in (or have time on your hands)

The snow was thick on our street on our Tuesday snow day

Snow days are so much fun, even if you’re working from home or retired and don’t need to worry whether you have to try and drive through treacherous conditions to work the next morning. There’s an implicit permission to throw responsibility to the wind and play hooky for the day.

My hubby and I went to bed on Monday night with snow falling thickly and confirming the two days of storm warnings from Environment Canada. I watched from our kitchen window as fierce gusts of wind scooped the snow from rooftops and flung it across the landscape. The small garden we planted along our back fence last summer was quickly disappearing from sight.

By the time hubby’s alarm went off before daybreak, there was already at least a foot of snow blanketing our neighbourhood, clogging our front porch, driveway, the entire circle we live on, and any access to the outside world. He closed the front door, called work to say he wouldn’t be there (a great relief for me that he wasn’t going to try going and run the risk of getting stuck) and we headed back to bed to snuggle under the covers until we felt like getting up for the day.

It was a lazy morning as we watched the snow continue to pile up. A couple of our neighbours have snow blowers and were thoughtfully cleaning all of our driveways. Eventually we bundled up to clean our vehicles off, and my hubby decided to check on the progress of pieces of barn-wood he routed, glued and clamped for a side table for our rec room. Inspired by an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives we watched a few days previously, I fished out a package of ground beef from the freezer and assorted vegetables from the fridge to make a pot of minestrone for lunch. This isn’t a soup I normally make, so it was fun to stretch my repertoire – with a big bowl of steaming soup to eat at the end of it.

Then, with a cozy fire crackling in our rec room fireplace, I spent an entertaining afternoon doing research for my novel.

I’m at the point in the story where some of the main characters will intersect with actual history from the wilds of my imagination. To make that work, I need to pull up enough details from historical references to produce believable scenes that resonate with the readers.

And it’s just fun to speculate on what part my own fictional characters could have played in a real event. Finding enough genuine facts – especially if the facts are a little mysterious or unusual – to flesh out the story is like a treasure hunt. There’s definitely a serotonin rush when you come across a curious little piece of information and think, Oh yeah, that could totally work for what I have in mind!

Staying at home this winter is a little like an extended snow day, except that it’s going on far too long. The great thing about an actual snow day was the excitement of watching a storm raise havoc outside while we were safely tucked inside our home.

Pet projects make the enforced down-time more enjoyable as well, whether it’s as simple a thing as making a dish you’ve never tried before, or a virtual scavenger hunt for whatever information gives you a lift. Rather than dwelling on how much time you have to fill, just let your mind wander outside the box and toss ideas at you. They may not all be good ones, but you can’t find the garden under the snow unless you start digging 😀