{ Author Archive - April Demes }

The verdict on solarizing weeds

My weed-solarizing experiment has been running for over six weeks now. It’s been quite wet and cool this spring, so it was a little slow to start, but we’ve had a few good hot days now and I am ready to call the winner:

Clear plastic after 40 days

Black plastic after 40 days

While initially I thought the clear plastic was working the best, the black plastic seems to have the best long term results. Probably the total light deprivation.

Things I would do differently next time:

1. Use bigger sheets of plastic. The garbage bags did the job, especially on an “experiment” basis, but finicky to use on the larger scale I intend to do. Also, I’m sure a heavier weight would change the effectiveness.

2. Cut everything back right down to the ground before laying the plastic. It would go down much smoother, and you wouldn’t have such a mess of dried up stuff to clean up afterwards.

3. Sealing out the air seems to make as much difference as sealing out the light. fix the edges really well as well as any seams.

4. If possible, I would try to leave the plastic in place for a full year, as different weeds manifest in different seasons.

 

Alberta flood aftermath

Enjoy your garden today, weeds and all: you’re not underwater.

Alberta is still reeling from the recent “unprecedented” flooding. (If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard the word ‘unprecedented’ in the last week…) Much of High River is unlivable, Calgary’s C-Train rails are a mess, parts of Waterton Park are cut off because of washed out roads, and many other communities, including the Siksika Nation, have been ravaged.

As for us: we are damp but our sump pump has remained idle. However, I only have to go one or two degrees of separation (in several directions) to find someone airlifted out of their flooded yard, or unable to get to work, or dealing with a death, or facing a completely destroyed home. It will take years (up to ten, and a billion bucks, according to Alberta Premier Allison Redford) to “fully recover,” whatever that means.

Much is being done to help displaced people with food, shelter, hygiene, and even a little entertainment (yay, Nenshi!). I’m glad to say I have two cousins in government in the area who are spearheading relief efforts for the worst-hit communities.

Through all this, I have thought a couple of times about the unlucky gardeners wading through this mess.  It’s with a little guilt that I even mention it, because I don’t mean to minimize the bigger losses some have and will experience. Still, my heart goes out to those dealing with horticultural devastation too. A lot of passion and work can go into a garden, and it’s got to be hard to have that washed away. The Calgary Zoo, for instance, has a wonderful botanical garden and I’m curious and a little worried to see if it makes it through, not just the giraffes.

I went digging to see what might be done for the plant kingdom under these circumstances, and found this informative article for those ready to turn attention to their gardens.  Also, the Calgary Horticultural Society is planning to organize donations of time, tools, and plants to re-green flooded areas.

While not nearly as important as food, shelter, safety and power, I’m kind of glad this concern is being addressed. I don’t know about “fully recovering” from the emotional losses so many have suffered, but burdens can be eased in many ways, one of which is enjoying the beauty nature has to offer.

All in all, I’m proud of how Albertans are pulling together to get through this, and I’m thankful for all the support coming from near and far. I think we’ll be back to working, playing –and planting– before we know it.

The war on weeds: goat’s beard

My dad was over this morning, helping Chris in the garage, and he asked me, “What is that pretty yellow flower you’ve got growing along the driveway? Can I pick some to take home to Mom?”

Much to my dismay, the plant in question will never win me any florist’s contracts, despite Dad’s favour.

It is Tragopogon dubius, otherwise known as goat’s beard (or sometimes yellow salsify or oysterplant) and it is a nasty, tap-rooted, fluffy-seeded nuisance.

Not to be confused with Aruncus dioicus, a tall, bushy perennial which bears the same moniker, the goat’s beard in question is not a garden desirable.

The plant also known as goat's beard.

A Eurasian import, goat’s beard has naturalized through much of North America thanks to a dandelionish habit: downy parachutes taking its seeds hither and yon. Apparently, as the dandelion, the roots can be eaten in various ways, but around here its only destiny is the garbage can. Except for the ones Dad did take home for mom.

I’ve got nothing against wildflowers here, I quite enjoy them. It’s just that it’s kind of depressing to be working hard babying the baptisia, lilies, and peonies, nurturing the young trees, keeping all (all, all) the grass mowed, and to have it go unacknowledged, unmentioned, while the attention goes to this runty little upstart.

My oldest scolds this naughty plant for stealing the spotlight.

 

 

 

The birds prove me wrong

My husband Chris is forever making stuff. He went on a streak a couple of years back making birdhouses out of re-purposed barn wood.

I warned him about getting too crazy with the size and shape of the openings, because I had read that different species of bird could be quite particular about that. He ignored me.

They were very popular and he’s sold most of them now; there are a few in our trees that he put up last year, but I didn’t think of them as anything but decorative because smartypants me knows that no bird would actually take a chance on these crazy things.

Particularly eyebrow raising was an old broken guitar he put up, minus the strings, for a laugh.

Well, wouldn’t you know it, all of these birdhouses have occupants.

Here are the starlings that have taken up residence in the guitar:

I realize these pictures will not have National Geographic ringing me up anytime soon... taken through the glass from the living room.

 

I should probably wash my windows

And there are some camera-shy little yellow finches hanging out in here:

Between these guys, the sparrows, doves, jays and the ubiquitous robins, our yard is downright noisy these days. I couldn’t have been more wrong. And I’m okay with that.

The slap-dash planting of the raspberries

So I ordered some new Souris” raspberry canes this spring. Chris and I discussed where they might go, and we agreed to make them into a hedge in the mostly undeveloped back pasture of our property. He agreed to prepare the ground for me before the arrival of said canes, as they would likely already be sprouting and would need to go straight in.

Bless the dear man, he completely forgot, being busy rebuilding our back entry. How can I complain when I’m getting new lockers for all the kids?

But all the same, when they did arrive last week, I was faced with budding raspberry canes, inches of  imminent rain, and a grassy, decidedly un-ready plot.

So here’s what I did.

With my fingers crossed.

The ground being too wet to till, and about to get much wetter, I put the mower on its lowest setting and cut a strip where we had decided to put the hedge. Then I started digging a row of holes in the centre of the strip–just enough to loosen the soil about ten inches across and ten inches down. I pulled out any big clumps of grass or dandelion roots, threw down a bit of bone meal for some insurance, and tossed a cane in each hole.

The rain actually started to fall about halfway through the job, but I kept working.

And lastly, to keep down the grass and weeds around the fledglings, I laid down some carpeting scraps. You can buy fancy circles from the garden centre for this purpose, but the rain was falling and I live a good half-hour away from major shopping centres. Also, I’m cheap.

I cut slits for the canes to get the best coverage. this is how I always mulch baby trees. Mower goes right over top. You can also use cardboard, but you'd probably want to add some kind of mulch over top so the wind doesn't take it away.

I’ll leave the carpet in place until next spring, when I will remove it to allow new canes to emerge. By then most of the grass and weeds will be killed back, and I can decide whether to adjust the carpet for the new canes, or till, or mulch, or whatever. That’s next year. For now, I have raspberries in the ground, all in about a half hour, despite the rain and a forgetful husband.

(New lockers!)

 

 

 

My patience pays off

Several years ago I fell in love with Blue False Indigo (Baptisia australis) when I read a magazine article about it. It was just the sort of sunny-plot, mid-height perennial I was looking for. When I redesigned my front garden four years ago, I put some in.

And waited.

Every year I watched it, to see if it would bloom. The foliage is similar to its cousin peas, and many times I was fooled into thinking the folding out leaves were flowers emerging.

But no, it has remained a non-descript bushy greenness though each growing season. One of my kids almost pulled it up, thinking it was an overgrown alfalfa.

I was beginning to think I had dreamt the images I had in my mind of what this plant was to become. I was this close to giving up on it, but thought I would email an expert at the Calgary Horticultural Society first. After all, maybe I was unknowingly undermining its success somehow:

Hi,
I bought a couple of False Indigo (Baptisia Australis) four years ago.
Every year they come up nicely, seem happy and vigorous, but they have yet
to flower, and don’t seem to be gaining any size. Looking over the plant
tag I saved, it indicates a height of 3-4 feet and mine have never been
more than 18 inches-2 ft tall. They are in full sun (some late afternoon
shade), and well protected from wind.
I have never fertilized them, but spread sheep manure and home compost
twice a year.
Any ideas for improving their performance?
Thanks
April Demes

 

I got this lovely reply this morning:

Hi, April,Thank you for your question!

Baptisia australis is extremely slow growing. It makes up for this by the
fact that it can live several decades if undisturbed.  (It has a long tap
root that makes transplanting and division difficult to do without harming
the plant).  It rarely blooms until 2 or 3 years after planting, and it
doesn’t typically reach its mature height until it is at least 3 years
old.  It sounds as if you’re doing all the right cultural things and that
you’ve planted it in the perfect spot.  If it is happy and healthy there,
then just wait it out – I’m sure you’ll be rewarded soon!  They are
definitely beautiful plants!

I hope this helps!  Happy gardening!

Sheryl
Editorial Team, Calgary Gardening
Calgary, Alberta
Calgary Horticultural Society - www.calhort.org
Find my blog Flowery Prose at www.floweryprose.com

 

The irony is, I went to check on my Baptisia just this morning, and look what I found:

See those little guys, almost looking like stalks of grain? Never seen those before. I think we’re in for some flowers this year!

Finally!

 

Why thinning?

That time has arrived for my earliest crops: they need thinning. I sigh, as I am wont to do over this task, and mumble once again, “Isn’t there some way to avoid this fiddly, tedious, extra task?”

Come on, admit it, doesn’t it seem like a make-work project to plant a bunch of seeds, and then, after a few weeks, take a bunch of them back out?

Why not just plant them all at the right spacing to begin with and be done with it, right?

Every year I think this, and every year I talk myself back into doing it the long way. Here’s some of the reasons why.

1. Bad germination. Sometimes only some of what you plant will actually sprout. I hate to break it to you, but there’s a lot that can go wrong before those little plants are even born.Could be heavy spring rains washing out or rotting seeds, dry weather frying them, critters stealing them, less than ideal soil temperature, or just plain bad seed. So you over-plant, improving the odds that you will have enough germinate for your needs, and insuring yourself against empty gaps in your rows or squares (along with the resulting urge to re-seed).

2. Plant strength. Not every seed is absolutely, one-hundred-percent identical. Each might respond differently to the exact micro-climate you place it in. By planting thickly, you can choose those plants that seem the strongest to focus your resources on, discarding those that are weaker– and you do this when they are quite young to give the survivors the best chance and the most room.

3. Nature of the beast. No matter how far apart you plant some seeds, you will always need to thin because the “seed” is actually a seed pod, containing a group of seeds. Beets are a good example. In these cases, just resign yourself to the necessity.

My biggest problem with thinning is this horrid feeling that I am killing tiny bits of life. All that potential! How can I toss it at the compost heap? But the truth is, by sacrificing those little guys, you really are improving the production of the rest. I had two big squares of carrots last year. One I thinned early, the other got pushed to the bottom of the list until well into July. You would not believe the difference in the harvest in those two squares (both seeded and germinated evenly): the first gave me pounds of medium to large sized carrots, the second had lots of tiny ones, the kind that are just annoying to try to clean and prepare.

‘Nuf said.

So away I go, with some good sharp scissors, and weigh my little seedlings in the balance. Those found wanting get a snip right at the soil line (yanking them up is more likely to disturb roots on the keepers).

There is the odd time you might find three really strong, healthy looking specimens grouped too close together. I have been known to dig some up and move them to a more suitable spot, but be warned: only try this on plants that don’t mind root disturbance.

Though I haven’t quit my grumbling about one of my least favourite garden chores, I try to keep as my mantra a little piece of wisdom I heard someone say somewhere, sometime: “I would rather grow a few plants really well, than an acre-full badly.”

The war on weeds: how to bake or solarize weed patches

I’ve been pretty up front with the world as to my losing battle against the dandelions, thistles, and various invasive grasses. But I’m tired of the shame. I am ready to fight back in a big way this year.

Before

 

I picked a weedy spot against the house that is supposed to be a gravel walkway to try an experiment with solarizing–a method of weed killing that basically uses the power of the sun to fry the suckers. Aptly known also as ‘baking’, you cover the area with plastic, weighting it down so the plants beneath are both deprived of oxygen and exposed to extreme heat. You have likely seen this principle in action when the lid for the kids’ sandbox accidentally got left out in the middle of the lawn for two weeks and everything under it turned yellow. Same principle, except we’re doing it on purpose.

I decided to try both clear and black plastic to see if one might me more effective than the other. So far, the clear seems to be working better, but I only put this together last Friday, so the jury is still out. Stay tuned.

 

 

Clear plastic, after five days. I probably should have whipper-snipped everything first, to avoid the seeds.

I just used garbage bags, without cutting them open or anything, so a double layer of plastic, and then weighted them with rocks. Making it airtight would result in a stronger effect, I would think.

UPDATE: July 5, 2013

Seeds: how old is too old?

When my grandpa died, my mom found all kinds of things in the basement and the garage, including quite an impressive collection of garden seeds. Some were at least ten years old, others could have been older. Not being one to waste, my mom planted a couple of the packets of tomato seeds, thinking she’d be lucky if a few germinated.

Well, you guessed it, dang near all of them sprouted. She was giving away tomato seedlings left and right. I guess Grandpa had them stored right (cool, dry, dark, with some air circulation).

Oh, the possibilities!

This week, a recently widowed friend offered me a similar collection of outdated seed that her husband had stored. With my mom’s story in mind, how could I resist giving them a chance? This couple being avid gardeners, there’s some cool stuff in here: there’s standards like kale and corn, but also gooseberries, huckleberries, an indoor cactus mix, rhubarb…

I feel vaguely like I’ve been given a lottery ticket: kind of hopeful, but not wanting to get too excited in case nothing comes of it.

I can’t bring myself to toss them, that’s for sure. It may be a waste of time, or, I guess I may have my own turn at giving away a lot of seedlings.

 

Garden friends come out of the shed

The flowers are slow this spring. It may have something to do with the weekly blizzards all the way through the month of April, but whatever: finally it’s May! And while I can’t be bothered to build a Maypole, I decided to celebrate by pulling some of my garden decorations out of the shed and choosing them new spots for the year.

I’m thinking I’ve got enough little critters (such as the ones below) and it’s time to think about some bigger, permanent art. I’ve got all kinds of projects swimming in my brain, and there’s even more ideas here.  I’d love to have an interesting hunk of architectural salvage in my garden (Garden of Ruins at Guildwood Park Toronto, anyone?) but I’m still a sucker for the cheap resin creations at the garden centre. Especially fairies and dragons.

I found this cute snail at Extra Foods (Loblaws) last year. He has settled down in front of my golden flowering currant.

This little lady actually made it through the winter snuggled up to this Blue Star juniper. Loblaws a few years back.

Some of my best garden art pieces were found at the thrift store. This Asian couple on a raft will be taking up residence in the dry riverbed… as soon as I dig it.

This little guy came home with me for 25 cents. He’s supervising the daffodils that we planted last fall. Ornamental hops coming up in the back.
Joining the family this year: from Greengate Garden Centre in Calgary, the silly whirligig ladybug!

 

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