{ Archive for the ‘maintenance and techniques’ Category }

Tree stumps and saltpeter

One of the great advantages of gardening out in the country is being able to do large scale projects.

One of the great drawbacks of gardening out in the country is finding professionals willing to travel to your residence to help you with large scale projects.

After having the power company remove three poplars from the front yard (due to their proximity to a power line), I spent some time trying to get a hold of an arbourist to come and grind the leftover stumps. No dice.

As much as my kids wouldn’t care if the stumps stayed (play value=very high), they’re a nuisance to mow and trim around and they’re constantly sprouting scraggly growth. And they’re just kind of ugly.

They are rotting away a bit, but not fast enough for me. I’ve decided it’s time to give up on the professionals and help Mother Nature along myself. I bought some stump remover and applied it several weeks ago.

Step 1: Using a wood boring bit, drill one inch holes in several places around the stump (the deeper the better). Drill similar holes at an angle into the side of the stump, creating vents for the main holes.

Step 2: Pour some of the stump remover into each hole (read the label for amounts). Pour hot water into the holes to dissolve the crystals.

It’s a pretty simple process. The stump remover basically just speeds up decomposition. You can help it by keeping the stump damp, even going so far as to cover it with plastic to hold in moisture. The label advises allowing at least 4-6 weeks for the process to work. This is what one of my stumps looked like after five weeks of intermittent rain and my total neglect.

Rotting nicely. When I pulled the grass away from the base of the stump I could see the wood crumbling quite a bit.

While doing some research on this whole process, I stumbled across an interesting fact: potassium nitrate, the active ingredient in this stump remover product, is also sometimes called saltpeter. If that word conjures visions of pirates and cannonballs, there’s a reason. It’s one of the main elements in gunpowder. That’s right, gunpowder. Which made the final step in the stump removal process seem suddenly much more exciting.

You can just let everything rot and then hack out the debris, but the manufacturer recommends starting a fire on the stump to burn out the remaining wood.

That’s right, fill your stump with saltpeter, then light it on fire.

Am I a pyromaniac, or does that not just sound fun?

The science behind it is the absorbed saltpeter allows the fire to burn right through to the roots of the stump, whereas a normal fire would burn only until it ran out of oxygen–pretty fast when you’re underground.

How can I not try this?

I got it started with a few leaves and some dry sawdust; some recommend a few charcoal briquettes or some kerosene (NOT gasoline). Be prepared though: it's a slow burn that must be watched for several hours or even a few days.

Attention poinsettia keepers

I am embarking on a test of concentration and dedication.

I have kept my poinsettia going from last Christmas, and it is now time to help it “flower” again. This requires keeping it in the absolute, uninterrupted dark 14 hours a day, and bright sunlight at least six hours a day. As suspiciously as this sounds like a schedule, I, the queen of distraction and misplaced to-do lists, am going to attempt it.

I first learned the ins and outs of poinsettia keeping from a column Karen York did in the 2013 Annual edition of Canadian Gardening. It’s true, I may have neglected a few of her well-explained steps (such as monthly fertilizing and cutting it back in early spring), and I never did take it outside for the summer. But it’s stayed a happy houseplant in spite of me, and I figure it’s worth a shot to get those red bracts back.

Karen’s tips specify starting this controlled light regimen October 1, so I’m right on time! Yay me! I’ve put an alarm on my iPad for every morning so I’ll remember to get it out from under its cardboard box in the closet. I think I’ll remember to put it away at night if it’s smack in the middle of the kitchen counter…

On second thought, I’ll set an alarm for evenings too.

Propagating rosemary… and Christmas cheer

I love rosemary. It’s an easy plant to love: fragrant, edible, medicinal, good looking. It is not, however, easy to keep alive in our neck of the woods. While it might be evergreen at a lower latitude, mine has to come inside and struggle through the winter as a houseplant–often unsuccessfully. It gets woody and lethargic and I often end up buying a new pot from the greenhouse in the spring.

I tried growing it from seed once; I got tired of waiting for it to sprout and gave up thinking I’d done something wrong. Then, a passing comment from a friend several weeks ago turned a light on in my head: why was I not propagating rosemary by cuttings?

I started to do a little research, and guess what that little packet of rosemary seed forgot to mention? It can take up to three months to germinate! Also, the best way to propagate rosemary is from cuttings.

When all else fails, April, read the instructions.

Anyhow, I’ve rooted lots of things in water (and you can root rosemary in water too), but I bought myself a little bottle of rooting hormone to try putting the cuttings right into the soil.

Start with a 3-4 inch length of stem. Use a sharp blade -not scissors- to avoid crushing the stem, and make an angled cut. Take the soft bits at the tips rather than the older, woodier stems; they will root much more easily.

Strip the leaves off the stem. The little nodules where they grew are the primary rooting points, so make sure there are lots. You only need a few leaves left on top. Quick, go take something out of the freezer that you can use all those stripped leaves with for dinner.

Dip the stem in the rooting powder and shake off any excess. I've heard you can use honey, but I've never tried it. You can skip this step, but rooting will take longer.

Poke a hole in your potting soil, place the stem in it, and firm the soil gently. Ta da! Now, keep it moist and be patient.

As I was gathering my supplies to do this, I remembered seeing a little rosemary topiary of a Christmas tree once. Then it hit me: why not do lots of cuttings (especially if my current plants are destined for their end pretty soon anyway) and give away tiny rosemary ‘trees’ to neighbours and friends this Christmas? Way better than circulating more sugar.

Maybe I’ll do some lavender as well.

I can’t believe I thought of this soon enough to actually (possibly) pull it off! I should get a prize…

My baby rosemary forest!

 

 

 

A rose of Sharon cautionary tale

I inherited four rose of Sharon trees with my current house. They had all been meticulously pruned by the previous owner, when we moved in a couple of years ago, so I really didn’t need to do anything to them for awhile—or so I thought.

The first fall, I’m guessing the owner snipped all the seed pods before we moved in in mid October. But last fall, these lovely little pods appeared. With the branches still looking all neat and compact, I figured no pruning required and forgot about them altogether. Big mistake. This past spring, hundreds of mini rose of Sharons sprouted up around each tree like eager little weeds. If I had a greenhouse, I could start a rose of Sharon nursery and make money. Instead, I’ve tried to painstakingly pull each one out. But I’ve got a long way to go until they’re gone completely.

So, this fall, any seed pod that I happen to see will immediately be snipped into a yard bag and disposed of.

They're quite pretty and innocent-looking when they're in bloom...

...but watch out! If you don't nip those seed pods in the bud, this will happen!

Quick seed-saving tip

I’m really, really trying to get into saving my own seeds but with all there is to do in the garden (let alone life!) my timing is sometimes off. Either I’m over eager and lop off the seed heads before they have fully matured, or find them too late, after their seeds have already dropped.

I don’t remember who taught me this little trick to avoid disappointment, but it’s a good one.

Get your hands on a bunch of little mesh gift or favour bags. Dollar stores are a good bet, or attend a lot of fancy weddings and beg them from everyone who has finished their candy. When you notice the seeds forming on plants, pop a bag over the head and tighten the ties snuggly around the stem. The bag will keep the seeds contained until you get around to harvesting them, and allow air and light to circulate in the meantime. They also dry very quickly if they get wet.

I got my parsley all bundled up. Works great for many types of flowers and vegetables.

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.

 

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!)

 

 

 

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

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.

 

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