{ Author Archive - April Demes }

Things I never knew would sprout

Here in Alberta, we’re still willing away the last of our snow, and most of my growing (other than daffodils) is happening on the kitchen counter top.

This is my “jungle”–a couple of tomatoes and peppers waiting for summer, a lemon verbena, a poinsettia I am attempting to hold over the season, a spider plant baby sprouting roots in a glass of water, a mossy saxifrage (that may be my new favorite ground cover, picture below), an overgrown pot of philodendron (known lovingly as “Dagobah” a Pulsatilla vulgaris (crocus), some alfalfa and radish sprouts, and that little greenness bottom left is the wonder of the week: Romaine lettuce.

I’ve been sprouting philodendron leaves and spider plant babies for years, and edible sprouts are a staple at my house. And I’ve heard of people trying to sprout avocado seeds or pineapple tops, with mixed results. But I never knew you could get lettuce crowns to sprout year round on your counter top! One of the instructors of the gardening class I am taking showed me how. Instead of tossing the lettuce ends in the compost, place them in water. Change the water daily, and you’ll get more lettuce! (And fast, too: the largest one there is about four days growth.) You can keep them going in water or you can pot them up. I potted mine up today.

This totally makes sense when you think about it; I ‘cut and come again’ my garden lettuce and green onions all the time; I just never thought to do it with my store bought stuff through the winter.

Next on the list of things to try: celery and lemongrass.

Mossy Saxifrage, “Pixie”. Isn’t she lovely?

That post-show over-inspiration buzz

So the Calgary Horticultural Society Garden Show was, as expected, totally great. And I’m not just saying that because I was on stage.

Super fun once I got over the nerves. Lucky sneakers helped.

My biggest take away was from urban farmer Kevin Kossowan, who (among other things) grows veggies year round in Edmonton. Yes, Edmonton. My hometown, winter wonderland, outdone in nasty winter-ness only by the likes of Winnipeg.

Watch Kevin extend his super awesome cold frame

Kevin’s passion rekindled my commitment to all things edible. I learned how to tweak my cold frame design, and how to plant it better. I learned what a “shoulder season” is (the normally underused planting/harvest time in spring and fall). I find myself once again considering building a root cellar. I find myself itching to pull out the shovels as soon as I’m home. I find myself…

driving home in a snow storm.

And buried under it for the last three days.

I love Alberta.

Me at the Calgary Hort Show… when did I become an expert?

This weekend is the Calgary Horticultural Society’s Garden Show. It’s a fantastic show, with top-notch learning opportunities and inspiration. I’m super excited, as I was last year.

But this year I’m also really, really, nervous. Anxious, even.

Somehow or other, writing this blog for the last few years has given several people the notion that I know a fair bit about this gardening biz. Which, if I may toot my own horn, I do. But not much more than anyone else who’s been at it as long as I have, probably.

Tell that to the people who asked me to be a speaker at the show.

Tell that to the me of last January, who accepted the invitation.

My topic is, “How to start gardening in Calgary.” How’s that for wide open? All of the many places I could go with that have been playing out in my head, on paper, and in software for the last several weeks. I think I’ve got it honed down to a digestible size. And I’m going to have fun with it, I know I will.

But I’m still trying to figure out when I went from experimenter to expert.

If you’re coming to the show, I’m at the ‘How-to’ stage at 1:15 on Saturday. Come cheer me on… or heckle, as you see fit. And definitely come say hi.

 

Soil health: starting the season right

I love this quote from Beverley Nichols that showed up in an advice article in my CG email this week:

“Light in a garden is a quarter of the battle. Another quarter is the soil of the garden. A third quarter is the skill and care of the gardener. The fourth quarter is luck. Indeed, one might 
say that these were the four Ls of gardening, in the following order of importance: Loam, Light, Love and Luck.”
 

In fact, several of the bits of advice in the article mention the importance of healthy soil.

I consider myself a fairly well informed gardener. I’ve gleaned quite a bit of knowledge over the years about all kinds of topics, and lucky me, I have a pretty solid memory retention. But when it comes to soil health, I’ve pretty much spread on the compost and crossed my fingers. Last year, I started feeling that my soil was getting depleted. I can’t tell you exactly why, just a general sense that growth wasn’t as strong as it could be, drainage more sluggish than normal.

So when I learned a class was being put on by a neighbour, an expert in agricultural soil health, I immediately marked it on my calendar. The evening was really valuable, and I learned a whole lot, but it truly is one of those topics that start feeling bigger the more you learn.

Some of the fundamental things I seem to be doing right, but I’ve never been one to add commercial fertilizers, and I think my compost is simply missing some of the trace minerals that plants and soil need. Your average garden-center NPK (Nitrogen-Phosphorous-Potassium) products don’t have them either.

Here’s a few of the nutrients I learned about from my neighbour. A soil test is the best way to determine what you need, and a really good garden centre or agricultural consultant should be able to help you identify ways of adding them.

Nitrogen: encourages vegetative, or leafy, growth. If your pepper plants look gorgeous but aren’t flowering or setting fruit, they probably have (proportionally) too much nitrogen. Gasses off quickly, so must be topped up more frequently than other nutrients.

Phosphorous: encourages strong root growth and structure. Part of the problem with phosphorous is that it tends to bind with the soil, making not all of what’s in there available for plants to use. It’s needed early in the plant’s growth to do the most good.

Potassium: I always thought this was nutrient for flowering and fruiting, but the real benefit of this important nutrient is how it builds a plant’s aerial (above ground) structure: how strong the stems and leaves are, how well it can take up water, etc. Also fights high levels of magnesium.

Sulphur: competes with sodium. I need to keep the sulphur levels higher than my sodium levels and it will minimize the effects of an alkali (high sodium) soil–but that’s because I have a fairly alkaline (high pH) soil. If you have a more acidic soil, use calcium to balance out the sodium. (Are you confused yet?)

Calcium: among other things, contributes to the storability of the harvested fruit.

Boron: important in plant reproduction. When boron levels are low you end up with hollow potatoes and strawberries, or pea pods with only a few peas in them. But careful: high levels are toxic.

Then there’s magnesium and aluminum, which at high levels cause cracks on top of the soil and contribute to drainage problems. And selenium and zinc, which contribute to both human and plant immunity. But selenium is restricted in Canada as it’s categorized with–get this–arsenic.

Yikes. Apparently there’s a reason people go to universtiy to understand all the ins and outs of this science. I’m ready to throw up my hands and go back to my compost and crossed fingers.

But I did get a bag of fully balanced synthetic fertilizer, which I am spreading on this weekend–with the compost and the leaves.

 

Welcome, winter

The bulbs are in the ground, the hoses are put away, the cold frame is tucked in with leaves.

See you next year!

View out our front window.

Laurel leaf willows in the morning sun.

Mountain ash ready for a snooze.

Who's been visiting the bird house?

Asparagus fronds are gorgeous in the frost.

Houseplant for the holidays: Norfolk Island pine

Have you seen them yet?

They show up every year right about now, with glossy bright green foliage that could capture the heart of any gardener entering GSW (Growing Season Withdrawal). Looking for all the world like miniature, limey-er Christmas trees, Norfolk Island pines are often sold in pots in North America, though back home in the South Pacific they grow to be proper, full-on trees. Not a true pine, Araucaria heterophylla has softer ‘needles’ and a somewhat droopy habit reminiscent of cedars or–dare I say it–palm trees. Its unique blend of familiar and exotic elements, combined with its sheer aliveness whilst everything else is going to sleep, make it an easy sell at the Walmart checkout.

I, in my short but illustrious career, have already killed two. One succumbed to either too much water or too little light, the other I’m quite certain disapproved of the cold draft it got every time someone opened the front door. My sister kept one out of drafts, in bright, indirect light, with infrequent watering, and it lived for ages as one of the happiest, loveliest houseplants you could wish for.

I am determined to try again. Third time’s the charm?

 

How I accidentally joined a horticultural society

I was up in Calgary this week with Chris for an eye appointment and to see Neil Young in concert (why yes, it was amazing, thank you for asking) and we found ourselves with a few hours to kill in-between. He wanted to hit the hobby shop, and I wanted to have a tiny snooze before rocking it in the free world. So I parked the car, he went in, and I closed my eyes–but not before spotting the little house tucked beside the parking lot. The little house with the lovely, snow-filled garden and the sign reading “Calgary Horticultural Society“.

I sat there pseudo-sleeping, thinking about popping in to say hello. I had been to their big garden show back in April, but had not signed up for a membership, rationalizing that I live three hours away and wouldn’t be able to attend any events anyway, except maybe the show again in the spring… Anyhow, I was supposed to be napping. Besides, even the term ‘horticultural society’ seems formidable… I feel like donning my rose gauntlets and a British accent as soon as I think the words. Aren’t these kind of societies for the snobbery? Will they test me on my Latin before starting any kind of conversation? I might as well have been back in high school, that’s how awkward I felt.

Well, the bunny got the better of me. Yup, right there in the heart of the city, a little brown bunny nibbling on the elite Horticultural Society ground cover. I got up and in I went.

This is the part where I apologize to Janet and Maryjo for the snobbery comments above, for the lovely ladies I spoke to in the office were anything but snobs. They welcomed me warmly and we had a short chat about upcoming events, their (beautiful and useful) newsletter, bunnies, and raccoons. Before I knew it we were swapping emails and I was promising to buy a membership and check out their online forums.

I feel silly now for being so apprehensive. I know I’m not getting everything I could be out of gardening unless I connect with other people who share my interest.  I love our ownCanadianGardening.com forums for this purpose, but I’m looking forward to the calhort.org ones, because only a Southern Albertan really knows the meaning of a chinook.

So that’s your challenge this week: search out a connection with your gardening community. Whether it’s someone down your street, at your favourite greenhouse, online, or in a club or society, we all need someone with whom we can share, complain, brag, and learn.

Poppy day

It’s almost Remembrance Day, and I’m slightly annoyed.
Excuse me while I grab my soapbox.
The Halloween sugar rush hadn’t even gotten up to full steam before I started seeing Christmas show up in the decor and on the shelves around town. What’s up with that? Remembrance Day has become the forgotten holiday, the little afterthought on the commercial calendar. I mean, it’s not even two weeks after the candy carnival, and there’s a full six weeks to brough-ha-ha over the mid-winter festival of your choice. Can’t we take a measly eleven days to focus on the lessons of history? To acknowledge the freedom we have to be over the top about pagan and religious observances? Maybe we don’t like to look death and war in the face. It’s not pleasant. But isn’t it important?
Okay, my soapbox is back under the bed. This week, after being inundated with leftover candy and resisting the premature onslaught of tinsel, I attended the pre-Remembrance Day ceremony held at my children’s school. I found myself appreciative of the respect shown there, but left wondering what I could do to more fully recognize the holiday. Don’t get me wrong, I do not want to add Remembrance Day to the list of commercialism casualties. But I wish I had a pot of Papaver rhoeas in my house right now.
They’re an agricultural weed in Europe, which is why they grew so readily on the graves of the dead in Flanders. Some enterprising soul could probably make a go at providing us live plants to go with our fake lapel pins, with the proceeds going to the Legion, or Unesco, or something.
There are many poppies out there, and I enjoy my Iceland poppies (Papaver nudicaule) in the summer. But I’m wishing for a little shot of the red ones right now to offset all the snow and help me remember Poppy Day. Maybe next year I’ll be thinking ahead and time it right to do it myself, but for now, I guess I’ll be content to pay my respects with a replica poppy, and all of my heart.

Gardening gizmos for the techy-types

As promised, I’ve been experimenting with a bunch of gardening apps on my iPad this week. Here’s the ones I tried, and what I thought of them. All available on the App Store; sorry Androidians, I can’t help you, but comment if you can help each other! Click on the images to see the details and screenshots for each app.

Toolkit HD, Applied Objects, $3.99

This is a slick, easy to use little package, an everything-in-one-place tool for to-do lists, your garden diary, and plant lists. Lots of nice features, like being able to tag your diary entries so you can go back and find your notes about the last time you pruned that apple tree, and making a plant list for your particular garden or gardens (up to four separate ones) with details such as when they were planted and when they will mature/bloom.  It gives advice based on your hardiness zone, but the plant lists (which I found on the limited side anyway) don’t adjust to your zone. You can add custom plants with pictures, along with all their sun/water/soil/temperature info, but they aren’t added to the main (search-able) plant list.  The Glossary is pretty good, a little simplistic maybe, but it links to Wikipedia if you want more info.  This strikes me as a great starting place for a beginning gardener who wants to be more organized, or the more advanced gardener if they’re looking more for record keeping.

 

Eden Garden Designer, Herbaceous Software, $1.99

This is a fun little app that is very visual, whereas Toolkit is very list-oriented. You can choose an imaginary background, or load a picture of your own landscape, and then fill it with plants, rearrange the plants, look at what would be blooming at certain times of year… you can even control the amount of wind and insects! It’s a great little gardening fix mid-winter or mid-city. That said, the plant lists are somewhat simplistic. There’s just “hosta”, no varieties or anything, and the plant choices are limited (you can buy additional groups of plants for $0.99). So as far as using this for designing, it’s great for generating ideas and getting a general idea for how things might look, but it won’t get you anywhere with detailed planning. Still, a fun little program.

 

LawnCAD, Nathan French, $4.99

This is a compact little Computer-Aided Drafting app that will likely appeal to the planners and math brains out there. I’ve never used a CAD program other than this, so I can’t really compare it or speak about its usefulness on a professional level, but as a layman I’m loving the interface, the preciseness, and the itty-bitty power trip that comes from building and erasing entire landscapes in one swipe. Warning: you must love nit-picky details to love this app.

 

Grow Planner, Growing Interactive, $9.99

A little more expensive than most, this app is really a case of you get what you pay for. Provided by the well-respected Mother Earth News, this app does everything but put the seeds in the ground. You draw the size and shape of the beds you want, choose the veggies, herbs, and flowers you want to grow (right down to the variety–it’s linked to all the best known seed catalogues) and it tracks how many plants should fit in that space, when they should be planted, when they should be harvested, and when the bed will be ready for succesion planting. You can choose traditional rows or square foot gardening. If you use it multiple seasons, it tracks what was where what year so you can ensure good crop rotation. Make notes, research varieties, tweak your frost dates, add custom plants. It will even email you planting reminders if you want. If you grow vegetables, you will love this app.

 

 

And now, just for fun:

Plants Vs. Zombies, PopCap, $0.99 (iPad version)

This is a ridiculously addicting game in which your garden plants defend your home from invading zombies. I know, ridiculous, right? But oh so fun.

 

 Happy Little Farmer, GiggleUp Kids Apps and Educational Games, $1.99

This is a gorgeous little game involving planting, caring for, and harvesting crops around the farm. My kids from 3 through 8 love it, and even my twelve year old can’t help watching. The motions are simple and the directions clear, and there are all kinds of cute little hidden surprises. An absolutely stellar game for little people.

The virtual garden

I have palm trees in my garden.
No, really.
I still live in Alberta, and there’s snow on the ground, but my garden is full of palm trees, and there are NO WEEDS.
Okay, so the garden happens to be on my iPad, but still.
Seeing as how the ground is freezing up and I’m transitioning from real gardening to the imagining of next year, I thought I’d spend a little time in the App Store digging for some gardening gizmos.
One of the first I fiddled with was LawnCAD, a landscape drawing program ($4.99), and along with the other trees and rectangles, you can place palm trees! And pines, and bushes, of course. I’m finding it kind of finicky to work with so far, but that may be because I’m a layman; maybe it’s great for professionals. Point is, I’m visualizing my house surrounded by palm trees. An innocent winter pleasure.

Next week I’ll tell you more about some of the apps I’ve found. In the meantime, tell me about your favourite virtual gardening gadgets. What works? What doesn’t?

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