The Spiritual Gardener: A Canada Day Picnic

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This time last year, most of the continental U.S. was broiling on the gridiron of a vast, unrelenting heatwave that left us all gasping.

The East Coast was suffering especially, with century heat day after day that was really very brutal. She Who Must Be Obeyed got busy and found us a surprisingly affordable cruise online, as our idea was that it would have to be better out at sea, especially if we could head somewhere northward, and preferably as far as possible in that direction.

RELATED: Recipe for a Perfect Canada Day Picnic

And that is how we came to be on an enormous cruise liner, far more opulent than the Titanic, steaming northward to Canada. I won’t say the name of the ship, as name dropping about ocean liners is tacky, but I will just hint that it is named after the great-great-great-grandmother of the infant heir to the British throne. We sailed out of New York City and as soon as we turned into the sea breeze of Long Island Sound the grip of the heatwave fell away somewhat. And the next day we were far out in the Atlantic with deliciously cool and humid air all around us.  It was heaven, and we could breathe again.

The iconic clocktower in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on a deliciously cool and gray Canada Day

The next day, we opened our drapes and saw that we were in the harbor of Halifax in Canada, surrounded by the low, rolling green hillsides of the lovely old harbor. It was Canada Day (July 1 for our American friends) and of course the town was in a holiday mood.  We had left the century heat behind as a bad memory; it was 75 degrees in Halifax and the local residents were complaining bitterly about how hot it was; we just smiled and shook our heads sympathetically.

Halifax, Nova Scotia is the town that gave rise to the world-famous Cunard Line, which became one of the great enterprises of the 19th Century, headed by the Nova Scotian entrepreneur Samuel Cunard, and it is this line that we were sailing with.

A Halifax study in fresh white, these foxgloves and astilbe remind the gardener that white is a cool and subtle color foil in the over-heated summer garden

We left the ship and walked through the beautiful historic town. We wanted to see the famous old fort on Citadel Hill that helped make Halifax a center of English seafaring and colonial life in the long struggle between England and France for dominance of Canada and, beyond that, into the rest of North America.  But more than that, we wanted to see the famous Halifax Public Gardens in the center of the historic old town.

The gardens are of Victorian vintage, having been built in 1867, the same year that witnessed the founding of the Canadian Confederation.  Sixteen acres of beautifully manicured gardens comprise this park-like gem set in the heart of the historic district, and the gardens are the site of special celebrations on Canada Day each year.  Picnickers make the Gardens a special destination every Canada Day.


A water feature in the Halifax Public Gardens gives a cool and refreshing feeling of place

Because of Halifax’s northern location, summer was barely beginning in the gardens there, even as July began. Only a few roses in the famous rose beds were open and a few dogwoods were still blooming. Everything was as fresh and green as a garden in the full blush of spring, and not blighted and heat-blasted as was our garden at home.  It could not have been more refreshing and delightful.

On the voyage home, the ship stopped in Boston Harbor for the Fourth of July, so we got to celebrate both countries’ national days on this beautiful ship. In Boston, they sailed the venerable USS Constitution out to the mouth of the harbor, where every ship saluted it with its ship’s siren, including the deafening blast from the Cunard vessel we were on, which drowned out all the others.  And it was from the great ship’s decks that we watched the fireworks over Boston Harbor that night.

These pinks, and the great tribe of carnations generally, offer hardiness, vivid colors and spicy perfumes to the garden, as they do there in Halifax

And that is why, this year, we are once again celebrating both Canada Day and the Fourth of July, and doing so with a simple and delicious cold chicken picnic meal. But not just with any baked chicken, but with a spatchcocked chicken.  If you have never prepared chicken this way, you should give it a try; it’s easy and fantastic.

The reason for spatchcocking a chicken comes from the fact that the build of a chicken causes a cooking problem – if you cook them long enough for the thighs to be done, the breasts and all the other parts are over-done and dry.

Solution: take the back and ribcage out and collapse the chest cavity, so the bird cooks evenly and deliciously. It sounds like major surgery, but it is really quite simple. As a bonus, we here give you a great recipe for potato salad and a dressing for grilled asparagus and salads.  We call it, A Canada Day Picnic.  It works just as well for a Fourth of July picnic, too.


A Canada Day Picnic

If you cannot be so fortunate to enjoy this picnic in the Halifax Public Gardens, then have it at your favorite outdoor spot, by water if possible.

One 3-4 pound whole chicken

½ cup of your favorite marinade or oil & vinegar dressing

One large bunch of fresh asparagus

½ cup plain yogurt

½ cup ranch dressing

1 Tbsp. hot sauce

2.5 lbs. potatoes (4 medium-sized potatoes)

1 Tbsp. salt

12 strips of bacon

6 Tbsp. butter

1 green pepper

1 medium yellow onion

1 tsp. garlic salt

½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper

1 cup ranch dressing

Potato chips

The chicken.  Rinse and pat the chicken dry.  Lay it on a work surface on waxed paper, with the breast side down and the drumsticks toward you.  Use kitchen shears to cut the skin along the backbone from the near side to one inch from the neck.

Using a not very sharp knife, gently press the flesh down and away from the backbone and the ribs.  You will need to sever the thigh bones and the wing bones from the main part of the body, and then you cut under the ribs.  The result is that you can lift the backbone and rib cage out of the bird (and freeze it for making stock later).  Then turn the bird over, breast side up.  Using the palm of your hand dress down hard on the breast bone, cracking and flattening it.

Rub the bird all over with the marinade or dressing.  For cooking, there are three options: bake it in a 350 degree oven until its internal temperature registers at least 140 degrees; cook it on the stovetop in a large skillet until 140 is reached; or grill it outside.  For our picnic, we used the grill.  You cook it breast-side down on a medium grill until the internal temperature registers 110 degrees, then turn it until you hit 140, and let it chill in the refrigerator.

The asparagus.  Wash the asparagus spears and trim off the woody ends.  Grill them au natural while the chicken is cooking until they are tender, and then remove them to cool in the fridge.  For the dipping sauce (and this may also be used as a great salad dressing), whisk together the yogurt, ranch dressing and hot sauce; refrigerate.

The potato salad.  Wash and cut the potatoes (skins on) into 1.5-inch pieces.  Boil them in salted water for 20 minutes.  While they are boiling, fry the bacon in a large skillet, letting the bacon drain on paper towel and leaving the grease in the pan; when cool, chop the bacon and put it in a large mixing bowl.  Add the butter to the bacon grease, then seed and chop the green pepper and the onion, adding them to the skillet with the salt and pepper.  Sauté the vegetables until they are tender.  When the potatoes have cooked 20 minutes, add them to the skillet using a slotted spoon, and cook them over a medium-high heat.  The idea here is for the hot grease to impart a bit of scorch flavor to the potatoes, so don’t be afraid to get them good and hot.  Add the potato mixture to the bacon in the bowl, being sure to scrape any scorched bits out of the skillet, and combine.  Stop here if you want to serve these hearty potatoes hot.  For cold potato salad, add the one cup of ranch dressing and toss; chill in refrigerator.

Serve.  We served this with a large bowl of gourmet potato chips because, well, we love potato chips on a picnic, as who does not?  And two choices of wine: a Château Ste. Michelle chardonnay from Washington State, which we think is an excellent and low-cost all-around chardonnay, and Sofia, a Monterey County rosé from Francis Coppola that is perfect at a summer picnic.


David Jensen writes the popular American blog “The Garden Interior,” which chronicles his garden in southern New Jersey. Please visit at You can follow David Jensen on Twitter at @GardenInterior.