Winter Reflections on My Balcony Garden (February 2002)

by Krys Klassen is an enthusiastic amateur balcony gardener with twenty years on a southwest facing seventh floor balcony.

Well, isn’t this an unusual season? My annuals, with the exception of the pansies, survived until Christmas Eve. I saw evidence of similar anomalies at ground level. The winter 2001/02 is going to be a source of gardening fish stories for some time. And at this rate pansies are going to be considered perennial and year-round. They looked a bit taken aback after the coldest night so far (-7 degrees Celsius) but revived as soon as the temperatures rose.

winterI sense a general unease among gardeners everywhere as they anxiously anticipate a severe cold snap that will kill off all those deluded plants that think spring must be imminent. The luxurious snow cover last year was such a relief from this worry. You find yourself beginning to hope against all logic and experience, that this is really the worst that winter is going to be this year. There are the examples from the last century (don’t you love saying that?) such as the winter of 1984/85 when crocus bloomed on south-facing slopes near High Park in Toronto in February. It seems like a gardener’s weather diary for the past decade would provide a wonderful source of wildly bizarre anecdotes. My current experience is unlike that of my sister who kept diaries in the sixties when last year’s frost dates could accurately predict next year’s.

When are They going to revise the zone rating system for plants to reflect the ranges 5 to 7 that accurately describe Toronto weather?

So Canadian - half an article on the weather. You have to admit the weather is going out of its way to provide material!

I have a new standard to meet here on my seventh floor balcony. I received a clematis challenge. Not personally, but in the Toronto Star last year, a balcony gardener claimed to have five clematis on her rooftop oasis. I have managed only two at a time so far - an early blue bell-shaped one and ‘Golden Tiara’, a yellow bell-shape with a dark purple, almost black, centre. I can claim only two successes, unless I get credit for ‘Bluebird’ which was given up for adoption when the building balconies were refurbished and for ‘Montana’, which I am sure will revive next year. After all, a friend at Merlin’s Hollow said he’s had clematis come back after seven years of feigning death. By that measure ’Montana’ has six years left before last rites. I am sure it’s only sleeping, like the fairy tale princess and unlike the Monty Python parrot. There were also my first two attempts, ‘Jackmani’ and the ‘Duchess of Edinburgh’, before I knew clematis could come back after several years’ hiatus, and before the Year-of-No-Balcony-and-Great-Anguish-and-Despair.

The clematis challenge is hereditary. My mother strove for years in the seventies to get clematis to grow on the ground. I never knew she had succeeded until I sorted through her photos. I found evidence of a truly stunning plant smothered in large white blooms growing in her backyard.

The second clematis balcony challenge is: how much do you plan for the up-close and personal perspective and how much for the neighbours on the ground below? All my clematis have tiny bell-like flowers, which are quite impressive (when you’ve fertilized heavily and there is lots of bloom) at a distance of a few feet. That is about as far away as you can get on my balcony without plummeting to the pavement below. The smaller flowers are more wind resistant. The seed heads look very satisfactory from up here for a few months until the wind blows them all to bits. However, from the ground, you can’t really see much except a mass of green tendrils. Obviously, the folks in my apartment are the priority, but it is very rewarding to provide passersby with a vision of burgeoning growth on an otherwise somewhat sterile building. I have succeeded with German ivy and nasturtiums that cascade from the window boxes. As well, several small trees are beginning to make their mark, but the clematis flowers are my secret.

The people in my building are amazed by all this lush green growth and they wonder why I don’t move to a house so I may give my hobby free reign. They have no idea how much a house seriously interferes with the time and money available for gardening. I am creating some ground-level hazards for them with my irrigation run-off and leaf and flower detritus. Luckily I am not alone in this, and some neighbours actually like it -because it discourages trespassers taking short-cuts through our parking lot.

So my resolution for 2002: get more clematis!