{ Archive for the ‘container gardening’ Category }

A fresh start

As the old year limped to a close, many looked ahead to 2009 with either trepidation or hope.

The scary global economy is something to give everyone pause, especially if you’ve lost 35 per cent or more of the value of your investments, as so many people have. However, we’ve all taken the hit in one way or another, so I guess it’s a level playing field of sorts.

You see, I definitely belong to the hopeful group; an incorrigible Pollyanna, the original cup-is-half-full kind of gal. And I’m looking forward to this year, which I know for me will be filled with new adventures. On January 22, I’m leaving my job as editor-in-chief of the magazine and striding forth into the great unknown.

But meanwhile, there’s the post-Christmas stuff to face. I need to start thinking about taking down the tree and putting away the colourful ornaments for another year. And after the reds and bright lights of the holidays, this is a time when I crave not more colour, but white. Perhaps it’s a symbol of purity for the as-yet blemish-free new year. I especially love to buy white amaryllises–I’m not quite ready for fragrant spring blooms, but the stately, scentless white blossoms of amaryllis feel just right–almost like trumpets to herald in the new year. There’s a little flower market not far from me that carries them for just $6.99; a real bargain, for just one plant brings pleasure for weeks.

I used to save my amaryllis bulbs and try to get them to reflower, but I had limited success with this (despite my cosseting, too many of them came up blind). So now, most of the time I enjoy them, then toss them into the compost. Happy New Year.

Festive special

Last week, I wrote about a cheap and cheerful way to fill up containers for winter. In case you had trouble visualizing what these branches look like decorated for the holidays, here’s your answer. We had a fresh snowfall this morning here in Toronto and I went outside to do some shovelling before heading off for work. I took this photo at first light (I’m an early riser).

I spent maybe 15 minutes, tops, festooning the red dogwood branches with an old string of white lights (must replace these with LED lights, which I’ll buy in the post-holiday sales), some unbreakable ornaments and a few garlands of unbreakable red beads. Maybe it’s not the most elegant container in town, but I like it.

If you’re planning to shop for a fresh-cut Christmas tree, you can prolong the life of its needles by spraying the tree with an anti-dessicant spray (several brands are available at nurseries and garden centres) before bringing it indoors. Ditto for your wreaths and swags. What this spray does is help seal the needles to retard evaporation of moisture.

I no longer get a big, fresh-cut tree–partly because the most misshapen, woebegone, Charlie Brown tree on the lot was the one I’d invariably choose to buy. One year, the poor thing was so crooked and bare on one side, I literally had to wedge its stand under the baseboard to keep it from toppling over. It looked as though it was bowing to everyone who came into the room.

These days, my tree is a sculptural affair fashioned from brown twigs. Each year I haul it up from the furnace room, put it on a table and decorate it. But I do buy fresh-cut boughs and put them in a big pitcher for their lovely smell.

We’re due for more snow tomorrow. Maybe it’ll be a rare white Christmas after all.

Cheap and cheerful winter container

Creating a winter container design can be a time-consuming and expensive undertaking. If you go the full monty with both broadleafed and evergreen boughs, magnolia leaves, eucalyptus, cones and assorted bits, bobs, bows and berries, you can very easily drop three figures on just a couple of pots. And if you have lots of pots, you might as well take out a mortgage.

So recently, after years of trying to outdo myself with increasingly elaborate container displays, I came up with an idea that’s simple, inexpensive and quick.

I now buy plenty of the prettiest, most colourful branches I can find (such as red, orange or yellowtwig dogwood, or perhaps really fresh, yellow-green curly willow). Then I push loads of these–but just one type per pot–into the soil of each container until a full and pleasing shape is created (do not skimp on the branches; cram them in). Next, for a more finished look, I top the soil with moss (a greengrocer near me sells huge boxes of the stuff for $15–plenty to do all my containers). If moss is unavailable, you could substitute leaves, straw, tiny pine cones or whatever mulch-like material comes to hand. The whole lot is then anchored with river stones, which I buy at Ikea for about $2 for a generously sized mesh bag (I figure on one bag per large pot).

And that’s it. Estimated cost per container? Well under $20 (and if you have shrub trimmings you can use, almost nothing).

During the holidays, I dress up the branches with a string of plain white lights and colour-coordinated ornaments. This year, to go with my red dogwood, I bought a large box of red ornaments from Ikea for around $5. They look like glass but are some sort of unbreakable stuff. These will be hung with good old gardener’s twine, which is both sturdy and attractive.

I’ve had a lot of compliments on these pots which, I’ve been told, look really festive and pretty. Best of all, after the holidays, removing the lights and ornaments is a snap. The pots keep their clean good looks all winter long and don’t look too Christmassy after the fact, either.

(Tip: if you haven’t put together your winter container yet and the soil in your pot has frozen, don’t do what my neighbour did and try to soften it up with a hair dryer. Best to lug it inside overnight, where it will defrost and be easy to work with the next day. Put it on a mat or some newspapers so it doesn’t make a mess.)

Window dressing

My kitchen has a little breakfast room with a skylight and a big sliding door overlooking the garden. Apart from that there’s just one window, with a panoramic view of my neighbour’s brick wall and into their kitchen window.

Rather than create privacy with curtains or shutters, I fill the deep sill with a motley assortment of plants. This has the same effect and gives both of us something nice and green to look at year-round.

My kitchen window faces north, so the light isn’t terrific for sun-lovers, but less fussy plants survive just fine. So what grows there at the moment? In the black, wrought-iron pedestal pot is a ‘River Nile’ begonia–a showy beauty whose leaves have maroon-coloured edges. Next to it on the right is a slipper orchid that has quadrupuled in size and has bloomed twice for me–it really needs to be transplanted, but I’m not that confident with orchids so I’ve been putting it off. And to the right of that is a crown of thorns (Euphorbia milii), which has grown quite tall and rangy because it would really, really appreciate more light, thank you. Even so, it does manage to push out a few red blooms from time to time, so good for it.

At the back left is a coffee plant that was sent to me some 18 months ago. This hasn’t grown too much, but at least it hasn’t died. (Still, I don’t think I’ll be grinding homegrown beans anytime soon.) Next to it and partially hidden from view is a floppy aloe vera, always a must in my kitchen because I often singe my arm or burn a finger as I’m pulling stuff out of the oven. I simply break off a bit of the plant and rub its sap on the ow-ow, which immediately soothes it.

Alongside these and thankfully hidden from view is a truly scraggly looking bit of lucky bamboo rooting in water. This was also sent to me and though I really should, I’m just too darned superstitious to put it in the compost. Last but not least, in the front left is a sulky African violet I’m nursing along. My house really doesn’t have great light for African violets, but I’m ever hopeful and keep buying them anyway.

What’s growing on your windowsill?

Load up the leaves

There’s a park around the corner from where I live, and in it grow a number of big, old oak trees. Although there was a cold drizzle this morning when I took this photo, I did notice most of their leaves are finally down. On the next dry day, I plan to head over there to rake some up into big, clear plastic bags to take home.

People think I’m bonkers when they see me doing this, but I don’t care. And yes, dogs frolic freely there, so I’ll wear my sturdy old rubber gloves just in case I come across any…well, you know.

Some of these leaves will be flung atop the garden beds right now to keep plants cozy over winter. (I’ve often wondered why people scrape every last leaf off their beds. Take a cue from nature–you don’t see any leaf-blower-wielding gnomes in the forest, do you? And besides, would you want to sleep naked and uncovered on a cold winter’s night? Of course not, and neither do your plants.) Next spring, those that haven’t decomposed will be raked up and put into a couple of old plastic garbage cans, where they’ll continue to break down into leaf mould. I’m never too fastidious about their removal, for even if I do nothing, by early summer the earthworms will have pulled most of them down into the soil.

A few bags of leaves will be stashed behind the shed at the rear of the garden, which is hidden behind a partial fence in the no-go zone I call the “back 40.” Here you will also find my composters, some old pots, bits and bobs, this and that and a big pile of discarded flowering plants and annuals–overflow that won’t fit into the composters). It’s a bit like having a very useful, giant junk drawer in my garden. Next spring and summer, a portion of the bagged oak leaves will be trotted out and used as brown matter in my composters and as mulch where needed.

I like most leaves, but I especially prize oak because unlike many other types, such as Norway maple, they don’t get all soggy and matted down when wet. They stay crisp and separate. Some gardeners believe oak leaves lower the pH of the soil, but my feeling is their effect is minimal. Still, the evergreens in my garden do seem to appreciate these leaves piled around their roots, so who am I to argue?

Tips from the pros–part two

As promised, in this post I’ll touch on a few tips for flower arranging and container design given by experts in Canadian Gardening‘s Green Room at the recent Style at Home show.

Elene Nouri and Jennifer Christiani, custom designers at Sheridan Nurseries’ Scarborough store, had some excellent advice on creating winter container arrangements. They securely tape a block of floral foam (such as Oasis) to the top of the soil in a container, which allows them to create a more layered, three-dimensional and fuller arrangement, as they can then insert greens and branches sideways into the foam as well as straight down into the soil. They advise soaking the floral foam in water to which they add a little liquid Sta-Fresh, a preservative, for half an hour before attaching it to the container, as this makes it less brittle and crumbly and easier to work with. After greens are arranged, they spritz their foliage with Sta-Fresh spray to further prevent them from growing yellow and bedraggled-looking. Once temperatures drop, the floral foam will freeze and hold branches securely in place.

Kate Seaver of Kate’s Garden had some great advice for keeping cut roses fresh. When you get your roses home, cut their stems at an angle and put them into lukewarm water with a bit of flower food. An angled (not straight across) cut allows the free circulation of water and nutrients up the stem. Be sure to strip off any foliage that would sit below the water line, as it will start to decay (this holds true for any cut flower). Change the water in the vase every two days, add a bit of flower food and cut the stems a bit each time. Pick off outer rose petals if they look spent.

If your roses’ flower heads suddenly droop, it doesn’t mean they’re dead, it likely means there’s an air bubble in the stem. To cure this, recut stems, lie the roses flat in a sink and add lukewarm water until flowers are covered (if your sink is too small, use the bathtub). Leave roses immersed in water for about 20 minutes, and they should perk right up again.

Tips from the pros–part one

Canadian Gardening‘s Green Room at last weekend’s Style at Home Show was a busy place. The glorious plants in all their autumn glory, lent to us courtesy of Sheridan Nurseries, drew many admirers. And as the organizer of much of the programming and master (mistress?) of ceremonies on Saturday and Sunday, I had the opportunity to listen to some super-knowledgeable speakers. Here are some snippets of good advice they offered. Look for my next post for info on flower arranging and creating winter container displays.

Dugald Cameron (of gardenimport.com) informed us that fall is the best time to plant (or divide) your peonies. The reason? This is the only time of year they show their “eyes”–those little white bud-like affairs seen just below the soil surface when you dig them up. Any divisions must have at least one eye, though several are preferable (Dugald often goes for four). When you plant your peony, make sure its eyes are level and positioned 1 1/2 to 2 inches below the soil. It’s also not too late to plant many spring bulbs. (Of course, this depends on where you garden–here in the Toronto area [mostly Zone 5 and 6] many hard-core, forgetful or procrastinating gardeners don’t even think about planting their tulips or lilies until November.)

Charlie Dobbin demonstrated a lasagna-type layered planting of spring bulbs in a large frostproof container, which then gets buried underground (or stored in a dark root cellar if you happen to have one). Here, you’re forcing the bulbs to come into bloom earlier than they would when planted in the ground, so that in very early spring, you can excavate the pot outdoors, put it in a prominent place in your patio or garden and enjoy waves of spring blooms for six weeks or more (those lucky folks with root cellars need only move their pot up to a bright spot indoors for a grand show). Charlie says, “make sure the container has drainage holes, and use a commercial potting mix. Start with about four inches of soil, then place the largest bulbs at the bottom of the pot and ignore the advice on spacing. Just jam them in, cover with about 4 inches of soil then add another layer of bulbs in the same way until you get near the top, and top it all with four inches of soil. Water, and “plant” into the ground–or store in a dark root cellar.”

Denis Flanagan talked about putting your garden to bed for the winter, and the news is good if you’re a bit lazy. “Basically, don’t do too much,” he advises. Don’t clean up–leave your perennials standing so their seedheads provide food for birds and a place to catch the snow [good advice, too, if you're a novice gardener, as it'll prevent you from inadvertently digging up plants next spring before they show signs of life]. And don’t rake the leaves off your beds, instead, pile more on. Both Dugald and Denis remarked on how handy it was their neighbours put out big bags of leaves for collection by the city–they could go around and help themselves. Water in evergreens well, and use an anti-dessicant spray, such as Wiltproof, on prized broadleafed evergreens–such as euonymus, mahonia and holly–spraying the underside of their leaves only. This is where their pores are, and the spray helps lock in moisture to protect leaves against drying out.

The Word on the Street

Last weekend saw me abandoning my garden once again and heading for the West Coast, partly to visit friends and partly to represent Canadian Gardening at Word on the Street, Vancouver. Word on the Street is a free annual event that celebrates reading and promotes literacy in Canada–in fact, it’s North America’s largest literary festival. This year, the celebrations were held on September 28 in Halifax, Kitchener, Toronto and Vancouver.

However, I wasn’t invited to read or even to speak; I’d been asked to demonstrate how to put together a fuss-free container in the Magazines Tent. So not only was I in beautiful Vancouver in perfect, sunny weather, I also had the pleasure of going plant shopping at Art Knapp’s lovely store, which luckily was located just a block away from my hotel. As far as I’m concerned, few things are more fun than buying lovely plants and a nice container with somebody else’s money!

What constitutes a fuss-free container to me? The plantings should require minimal maintenance, look good together and happily co-exist. That means avoiding thugs and wimps in equal measure. I think fuss-free also means something that has a fairly monochromatic colour scheme. Even if you’re no genius with colour combinations, choosing toning shades and pleasing textures and leaf shapes will result in a good-looking design. Think of these as your background pots; foils for the showier prima donnas that might require more cosseting and primping.

When planning your fuss-free container, In terms of shape and structure, it’s helpful to remember the phrase “thrillers, fillers and spillers.” To condense container design into a nutshell, what that means is choose a focal point plant or even some branches (in the case of my Vancouver demo, it was an ornamental millet in lovely shades of copper, burgundy and wheat), then opt for a variety of plants in colours that echo and complement those of your thriller plant–these are the fillers. Finally, the spillers–plants that trail over the edge of your container to soften it and add a lush fulness to the arrangement.

Once your plants are snuggled into the soil, give them a really good long drink of lukewarm water, then top things off with some mulch to help retain moisture. I find moss works well and gives the soil a finished look; sometimes I add a few small stones for more texture.

Consider, too, that perennials and small shrubs are often a great choice for fuss-free containers, and then instead of being tossed into the compost, can be planted into the garden before freeze-up to be enjoyed for years to come. In my garden at home this year, I’m experimenting with a purpleleaf sand cherry in a pot–this ubiquitous, inexpensive plant looks great in a container because it has a graceful form, showy leaves and pretty pink flowers in spring, yet is not too bushy so you’re able to pack in plenty of things around it. My container is quite large, and I’m leaving the sand cherry in it over winter to see if it will survive–it’s a Zone 3 plant and I garden in Zone 6, so with a big of mulch and a sheltered spot, fingers crossed it should do just fine. I also have four evergreens–two cedars and two junipers–on the third-floor deck off my bedroom. These were bought cheap and are planted in ridiculously small, square plastic planters, not double-walled. Believe it or not, they’re going into their fourth winter with no problem. My secret? I water like mad right to freeze-up, and mulch. That’s it, that’s all.

Stan’s Jade Plant

Some 20 years ago, my friend Penny’s mother, Jean, gave me her late husband’s jade plant for safe keeping. She was moving from her bright apartment into another with less natural light, and had no room for it. I’m not sure how long Stanley had been growing it, but it was quite a size when it came to me and it’s gotten bigger ever since.

Anyone who has grown a jade knows their branches are very fragile and break off with the slightest nudge. So this one has never been repotted, and lives in a surprisingly small plastic container with little soil (jades like to be potbound). This pot rests in a large terracotta one to give the plant stability. I water it when I remember and feed it very seldom.

The plant has become a behemoth–its wingspan is about four feet, and its height a good three. I used to be better about pinching it back and moving the pot around so it grew evenly, but I’ve become less attentive so its a bit misshapen. It’s too heavy and cumbersome to move outdoors anymore, so it lives, summer and winter, on my sun porch, where it gets plenty of light and copes with extremes of heat and cold. It’s never flowered–my porch faces west, and maybe the sun just isn’t intense enough through those windows.

The other day, Penny was over for a visit.

“Hey, is that my dad’s old jade plant?” she asked.

“Yes, it is,” I replied, thinking she might ask to keep it.

“Kinda ugly, isn’t it?” she remarked.

Uh huh. And I guess it’s mine until further notice.

A big welcome and watering wisdom

This is the first post on my new blog on our brand-new website. A blank slate. An empty page.

Luckily for me, I never suffer from writer's block. Not ever. Quite the reverse. Yee ha, blah blah blah and rein me in! So it should be easy to keep this up. Especially as this will be an off-the-cuff, anything-that-comes-into-my-head type of thing. Sometimes about gardening, and sometimes not. But let's at least start with a bit of gardening.

This morning I was up extra early to water my umpteen containers, some of which are in my shady rear garden and some on my sunny deck. In case you think I do this every day, let me put you wise. When it comes to my plants, I firmly believe in easy does it by getting the upper hand. It's a bit like having a child. Start them off right, treat them well, but establish a routine that suits you. At least that's my theory, and most of the time it does seem to work.

Because I have neither the time nor the inclination to water daily, I start the season by putting my plants in good soil mixes with a moisture-retaining product such as Soil Sponge (there are others), then mulch the pot's surface like mad. Though I create most of my own container designs, I also love to buy a few ready-planted hanging baskets at the supermarket for instant colour and effect. These are transplanted into slightly bigger containers topped up with really good soil and get the mulch treatment, too. I find this helps keep their closely packed, mega-fertilized plants from drying out too quickly, which in my experience the store-bought containers do.

In general, these few extra steps help me keep the (thorough) watering down to a couple of times a week, unless it's brutally hot and dry. Of course this doesn't mean you should let plants suffer and droop–but don't mollycoddle them with nervous little dribbles of water every day either. Instead, give them a good soaking with lukewarm water until it runs out of the bottom of the pot (drainage holes for the pot are an absolute must), then wait a few minutes and do it again. And don't forget to deadhead and add a weak solution of plant food every couple of weeks to keep blooms coming.

If your containers start to look straggly or a rambunctious plant is getting the upper hand, cut it back. I also find certain annuals, such as lobelia, pooch out fairly early in the season and aren't worth rescuing (or really, growing in pots, for that matter, no matter how pretty they may start out). Scaveola gives me a big beautiful jolt of purplish blue, too, and takes an awful lot of punishment without going all pouty and high maintenance–try it.

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