Getting back to nature with Yoko

I can’t remember ever being in the mood this early in the year before, but something has happened to get my decorating juices flowing: the “Homes for the Holidays” charity house tour. The tour supports Ottawa’s Hospice at May Court and it let me and my mom and sister — plus 2,497 other decor enthusiasts —  nose around six outstanding, seasonally decorated homes in the Nation’s Capital. I’m sure the others are just as anxious as we three are to deck our own halls at home.

The most striking residence in our view was that of the Irish Ambassador, which recently benefitted from a 7.5 million dollar (rather controversial) renovation. Among other features, the home boasts nine spectacular chandeliers dripping Waterford crystal!

Echo Drive, Fresh Flower and Gift Basket Company. (Photo by Mark Holleron)

What stood out most, though, in all six beautiful homes, were the magnificent floral arrangements, something I am now hoping to recreate.  Somehow the florists managed to artistically combine birch bark, pine cones, and twigs with beautiful flowers, including orchids, green spider mums and my new favourite — Yoko Ono mums.  The challenge now is to extend my flower arranging attempts to, well,  dead things. These will be true examples of “nature morte” — French for “still life”.

Dave and I are fortunate to have country property to provide us with materials for this year’s Holiday Decorating Project. On the weekend we loaded the backseat of the car with Birch branches and bark, boughs of Eastern Hemlock and cedar, bright red Winterberry (Ilex) and Sumac branches, and armfuls of gigantic, puffy, common reed (Phragmites australis). I’ve also incorporated Hydrangea and Iris pods from the garden into my amateur creations.

Photo by Leah Walker

With the table heaped with chunks of Birch bark, conifer branches and twigs, our dining room looks like Mirkwood Forest in The Hobbit.

I have had good success with our bounty, with one notable exception. The common reed, propped up in the corner of the living room, looked like the sad mop in the Swiffer commercial  — not exactly the look we were after.  The reed tops are now carefully wrapped in a yard waste bag so no seeds terrorize the neighbourhood.

Thanks to inspiration from the house tour, I can guarantee there will be no inflated Santas, reindeer or plastic garland chez nous this year.  I can’t justify tossing out our fake tree, though. It will have to stay — at least until I haul home an impressive, nicely proportioned, branch.


Unladylike behaviour

It’s been a spectacular autumn in Ottawa. All these bonus warm days have sent me into the garden day after day, getting projects done I was sure would have to wait for the spring. Our walkway is clear of weeds and grass, the leaves are raked, the peonies have been cut back. But another beautiful day means another attempt by the ladybug army to take our house.

The ladybugs are especially attracted to the south side of white houses. On a sunny day ours becomes speckled in orangey-red spots.  When I open the front door to collect the newspaper, they storm.  They also sneak in on our clothing, and while they are easy enough to pluck off, opening the door to send them on their way brings in another wave.

Technically, these infiltrators are Asian ladybeetles. While they are pretty enough when you meet them one on one, these ones bite, and in swarms they are creepy.  Wonderful for the garden, as they munch on aphids, but in the home they are a nuisance, and if you accidentally squish one — yuck. They are stinky and the smell attracts their friends.

Warm soapy water is a way to discourage the critters and I’ve now armed myself with a spray gun. Neighbours be warned. You should expect to witness a recreation of the final scene of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when I leave the house on sunny days like these.

More on Ottawa’s ladybug invasion:

Frugal for life

Frugality is usually borne of necessity, and that means that many people in this tough economy are getting to know its meaning very well. Once they’ve experienced all the frugal life brings them — will they go back to the life they led?

As a married university student, thriftiness was vital if I wanted to avoid years of student loan debt. Fortunately (in an economic sense), being married almost eliminated the need for any social life — money saved! And that whole “struggling student” thing worked in my favour as well. Most of my friends were in the same boat. I remember staff at the university coffee shop being very understanding when we would ask for hot water for the tea bags we brought in ourselves. Although some of my attempts at cost cutting were well received, I still cringe when I remember the night I cooked up chicken livers that even the cat wouldn’t eat. Even slathered in no-name ketchup. I’m not sure if I’m still cringing at the taste — or the waste.

That’s how your mind works when you’re in the frugal zone.

Later, as a single mom, frugality was the way to achieve the family’s goals. In charge of the family finances, I learned all kinds of things they don’t teach you in school about budgeting, strategic shopping, and saving. I applied lessons my parents learned living through the Great Depression: How to stretch meals, the importance of saving before spending, fiscal restraint, and using credit wisely.

Thanks to what I learned l managed to create simple recipes that wowed (I like to think) family and friends (although to this day our home remains chicken liver-free); sent both kids off to college, and was able to help them participate in school exchanges and trips.

Doing work I love, but in a low-paying, uncertain industry, has also made me want to stretch every dime. We’re all faced with choices and sometimes the path you choose will involve much scrimping down the road. Something to weigh seriously, kids!

You’d think that it would be easy to be frugal when you have to be, but tough when you’re not forced into it, but once you’ve lived the frugal life, being wasteful is very hard to do. While I don’t wish the “having to” on anyone, being frugal is a lesson that I hope others will learn and benefit from.

An ailing economy and planet have made my frugal ways quite trendy. Simplicity in home decor can mean minimal posessions give maximum punch. Not putting up Christmas lights sends the message that I care about the earth — not that I’m scrimping on my electric bill. Same thing with my turned-down thermostat, my limited water use, my clothesline, my taking the bus, my trips to thrift shops.. the list goes on.

My frugal side is more than happy to do its part.

Welcome to Weedville

As we took possession of our new home this spring, a neighbour joked that we were now taking over the local dandelion wine production franchise as well. Certainly, our front yard boasted one of the most impressive bright yellow crops around. Feeling unwelcome elsewhere in the neighbourhood, the plants seized control of our long-neglected lawn.

But it’s not just dandelions out there. There are weeds I’ve never seen before fighting for a piece of our territory: burdock, plantain, crabgrass, black medic, mallow, and knotweed, for starters. Then there are the pretty but annoying ones: buttercup, orange hawkweed, purple nightshade, and my bane — bindweed. Grrr! It makes me angry every time I see it wrapping itself around my beautiful flowers or making its way through the neighbour’s chain-link fence.

Recently I discovered a solution worth thinking about for next year. It’s a local enterprise which matches homeowners and their decent-size yards, with a food-growing operation. Vegetable Patch is a landless CSA or Community Supported Agriculture.

What they do is take under-used green spaces in Ottawa and turn them into vegetable gardens.  Customers typically sign up either to buy shares in advance of the season’s production ( they offer weekly baskets and bi-weekly baskets for $550 and $275 respectively for the season) or, in exchange for the use of their land, participants get a weekly basket of fresh, local produce. The growers win too as they get improved financial security.

Forget the 100-mile diet, this is more like the 100-foot diet.

I love this idea. Next year I could sit back, let someone else do all the weeding and planting, have a basket of vegetables delivered to my doorstep every week  — and feel good about supporting local agriculture!

By the way, as I researched the various weeds I’m now sharing space with, I discovered we’re not the only Weedville around. There’s a whole town called Weedville in Saskatchewan. Imagine how tall the dandelions must grow there!