{ Archive for the ‘soil’ Category }

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.

 

The wonder of it all

I’m going to stop for a moment from my usual narration of events to draw your attention to the affairs of nature we observe and encourage as gardeners.

Watching seeds sprout and perennial roots send out new shoots, I’ve been thinking – how does this happen? How is it that we take the growth of plants for granted as absolutely normal? Even with the understanding of biology, cell division, photosynthesis, isn’t the the whole process just this side of impossible?

Seeds turning into flower, or food, or tree is simply a part of our lives. We’re surrounded by it. But think for a minute. A tiny 1 millimeter seed. Add water, soil, light, and time, and you’ll end up with a 10 inch carrot. Isn’t that on par with pulling a rabbit out of a hat? Or Scotty beaming us up?

These little packets of cells know entirely what they are doing. They know how to make beautiful, useful somethings out of dang near nothing. And after exposure to cold that would end the life of most respectable living things, many of them come popping up cheerily as if nothing were ever wrong.

I invite you to mentally pack away your spring to do list, your gripes about mud or snow, everything you know about botany and cultivars and fertilizers and landscape design, and go find a crocus or a tree budding. Watch it for a bit. Marvel at the absolute ridiculousness of it all.

And remind yourself–this is reality. And this little bit of reality is a full-on miracle.

Will my new pen biodegrade as I’m writing my to-do lists?

papermate-blogDespite working on the web, I'm still a paper person. I keep lists and notes in more than one notebook, I'm forever jotting things on Post-its and I still keep track of my life in my daytimer. Not particularly eco-friendly, I know, but at least my pen now is! A few weeks ago I was sent a Paper Mate Biodegradable — a nifty new pen made of parts that will decompose in soil or compost.

So maybe next spring after all my note taking, my pen will be inkless (though you can buy refills!) and I'll be able to bury it and see how long it takes to biodegrade — right alongside my Cargo PlantLove lipstick case. It will be like a little bioplastic graveyard in my garden!

Waifs and strays

img_2939Most experienced gardeners know it’s best to invest in a well-grown, top-quality plant. Well tended plants have the vigour and stamina needed to make the successful transition from nursery pot to garden. Once in awhile, though, I’m drawn to a less-than-stellar specimen at an end-of-season sale. Something about it telegraphs, “please give me a chance,” and I do.

Take the tree peony shown here, which was little more than a stick when I scooped it up a couple of years ago for $4. The few leaves it had were healthy and green, so I gave it a little talking to, a bit of TLC and planted it in the ground. This year, it’s powered up into a big, beautiful plant and rewarded me with more than a dozen massive, brilliantly hued blooms.

img_2963Ditto this Japanese maple, which I rescued quite late one fall for $20. A few of its branches had been broken off and it was a bit lopsided, but basically it appeared to be healthy and just needed some gentle pruning. I placed it in the back of the garden where its spindly condition wouldn’t be so noticeable.

Plain old Acer palmatum is the most commonly sold and hardiest of the Japanese maples in our Zone 6 Toronto climate, and I figured it had more of a fighting chance of surviving that first winter than some of the fancier, more finicky, cut-leafed marquee types. I was right. This once-scraggy example is now well on its way to becoming a graceful, shapely small tree.

Of course, I would never buy a plant that is clearly diseased or really needs to go to that great garden in the sky, and neither should you. But it’s fun to adopt a promising mutt and see it grow into a champion.

Another thing I love about gardens is the way mystery plants crop up in unexpected places. These may be gifts from the squirrels or the wind.

img_2931img_2967A lone candelabra or Japanese primula (Primula japonica, far left) appeared in the garden this year. I didn’t plant it, but it seems to have made itself right at home. And columbine (Aquilegia spp., left) in various colours seeds itself hither and yon, including in between the patio pavers.

A couple of doors up, the neighbours have a fine show of Allium giganteum, below. I grow various types of alliums as well, but not this one. However, I now have several of these in my front garden, courtesy of the squirrels (and inadvertently, my neighbour. Luckily I live on a very friendly street).

img_29461Take a look around your garden and see what unexpected gifts you might find out there. And keep your eyes open at the nursery for those orphan plants that deserve a good home and a fighting chance.

Feeding my soil

In the past, without really understanding what my soil needed for my plants to thrive, I would spread a few bags of top soil on my gardens in spring and call it a day. But I’ve been reading about pH levels and the importance of composting and mulch that I don't know where to begin. So I turned to Anne Marie to seek advice on how a budding gardener should prepare her soil.

Here is Anne Marie's advice:

  • For most plants, pH is less of a concern than the type of soil present. Most plants are fine with soil that is slightly alkaline all the way to slightly acidic. It is only when soils are very acidic or very alkaline that some plants will struggle if they're growing in a type of soil that is not suited for them.
  • For example, acid-soil loving rhododendrons growing in very alkaline (limestone based) soils. Most plants are tolerant of a relatively wide range of soil pH values.
  • Test your soil for its pH level if you are curious. Horticultural lime or garden sulphur are the most often recommended products applied to alter the soil acidity level.
  • PH aside, compost is excellent to add to the soil. Make sure it is from a reliable source.
  • Three to five centimetres of compost added each spring is a great soil enrichment program.
  • Then place a layer mulch on top of the compost.
  • An undyed organic mulch is great if only a small layer of compost can be added or if compost is only added every other year. The organic mulch (shredded pine bark, pine needles, cedar mulch, etc.) will break down over time and become part of the soil. Therefore it should be topped up every year.
  • My advice is to leave the existing soil alone and work on adding compost to it each year, with the addition of a mulch topping. This is a much easier task to build a “raised bed” than dealing with clay, for example, and fighting the battle to change the soil composition.

So with this helpful advice, my next step is to apply a layer of compost to my beds.

Of miracles and wonder

img_2821The mow, blow and go guys hit our neighbourhood weeks ago now, scraping gardens clean and leaving vulnerable plants naked. Tall brown bags lined the curbs like sentries, filled with leaves, prunings and garden debris. As usual, my garden was the scruffy holdout, because I like to wait until the weather is quite settled before I expose my plants to the unpredictable elements. If you rake with a light hand and judicious eye, little harm is done by waiting, in fact, quite the contrary. So my woodland garden out front remained defiantly covered with leaves until last weekend, when I got out there because around the corner, the neighbourhood’s best bluebell lawn was in full flower (below left). I use that as my fail-safe signal that spring–real spring–has finally arrived.

img_2829Out back, I thinned out the old, silver-edged, redtwig dogwood (Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’) and the ‘Diabolo’ ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diabolo’). It’s much easier to shape these shrubs and remove the wildwood and suckers before they’re covered in leaves. I lightly headed back a few other shrubs, removed old plant stalks and seedheads and spread leaf mould, compost and manure on the beds to add nourishment and texture to my sandy soil. I stashed the leaves I’d raked off the beds in old garbage cans out back, except for some of the ones out front that had been exposed to any salt or chemicals from the sidewalk or road. Some of these leaves will be layered in my composters, while others will become next year’s leaf mould. I have some bags of bark mulch at the ready, but I’ll wait for a bit to allow emerging plants to get more of a toehold and any seedlings and “found” plants to show themselves so I don’t accidentally smother them. Before the mulch is spread, I’ll give the garden a really good weeding and watering, too.

img_2841I also planted up a few spring pots with ranunculus (left), pansies and ivy. The sweetly scented pansies remind me of my grandmother, who planted some every year, too. The Lithuanian name for them is “broliukai,” which means little brothers, and that’s what they look like with their dear little faces.

We gardeners know what the phrase “full of the joys of spring” really means. Every morning yields a new treasure to admire–in my garden, it might be a double bloodroot flower; a bergenia; a checkerboard frittilaria; a species tulip; the signs of life in a dormant clump of ferns. When did that tree peony leaf out? How did the daffodils shoot up and bloom so quickly? And thank goodness the merrybells (Uvularia grandiflora, shown emerging below right) made it through another winter. img_2845

One of the head-turners in the front garden is the gorgeous, intensely blue hepatica (Hepatica nobilis, top), which blooms for weeks and weeks. In the back garden, two fragrant Viburnum carlesii standards are powering up to do their stuff.

I love going for walks to see what’s happening in other gardens as well. The star magnolias and some serviceberries are in full bloom, while the saucer magnolias are just coming into their own. Big-bellied robins strut around, looking very pleased with themselves.

img_2836In his song “The Boy in the Bubble,” the great Paul Simon wrote, “…these are the days of miracle and wonder.” This song is not about spring–in fact, far from it–but to me, these words sum up what happens right around here, right about now.

Next: more reports on spring

Searching for signs of spring

img_2654As the song goes, “spring will be a little late this year.” At least that’s how it’s felt to me.

It’s been a dark, cold and snowy and seemingly never-ending winter here in Toronto, but this week we’ve had a few warm, sunny days and brilliant blue skies. It’s a perfect time to walk around the neighbourhood to search for signs of spring. In my garden I can see daffodils poking their way through a mulch of leaves, while the blooms on my ‘Primavera’ witch hazel brighten up the fenceline.img_26552

I walk around the corner in search of crocuses and snowdrops with no success, but notice that buds are fattening up on shrubs and some ground-covering sedum is showing its first signs of life.

img_2664img_26611When the weather is like this, gardeners itch to get out there and start the cleanup. Please resist. It’s much too early to rake off that mulch–winter ain’t done yet and you could give your plants a nasty, cold shock. It’s best to wait until the weather really settles down and warms up to stay.

Next: Adventures in Arizona

Can you use sawdust as mulch?

While looking through reader comments in articles recently, I saw that someone had commented on Lorraine Flanigan’s article Blanket your garden with a cosy winter mulch. The question was whether or not you can use sawdust to cover your bulb beds. I wasn’t sure how to answer this question, so I consulted Anne Marie. Here is what she had to say:

The sawdust will add another layer of insulation in addition to the soil and protect the bulbs during winter. However it should be removed or amended in the spring. Sawdust is a high carbon source (almost 40%) and when it decomposes in the garden it can divert microorganisms from helping plants obtain valuable nitrogen fertilizer. It can easily cause a nitrogen deficiency when it is breaking down as a result. This can be compensated for by adding additional nitrogen from fertilizer (for the plants) while the sawdust decomposes. The estimated carbon:nitrogen (C:N) ratio for sawdust and wood chips is 500:1 while composted manures are usually in the 17-50:1 range. A C:N ratio of 30:1 is considered ideal. Sawdust can be used in the garden, but after it has been composted. Use it in a compost pile with lots of “greens” to provide the offsetting nitrogen source. The nitrogen sources can be lawn clippings, vegetable kitchen waste, garden refuse but not leaves which are another carbon source. Some gardeners just pile the sawdust in the back corner of their yard and let it sit for a year and then it should be safe to use. So, remove it before it robs too much more nitrogen from the soil, put it in a pile in an out of the way place and add a high nitrogen fertilizer throughout to help with the decomposition process.

Swimming in leaves

There is a monster tree next door that loves to wait until the very last minute to drop its leaves. Last year we waited and waited and raked as much as we could and then that last big deluge happened just as we got our first snowfall. I was wondering if this is bad for my grass and gardens or if the leaves make a good mulch.

Definitely no leaves should be left on the lawn, says Anne Marie. They will smother the grass and could contribute to more overwintering diseases. Particularly bad are wet clumps of maple or oak leaves (we've got a maple!).

A layer of leaves (about 7 cm) can be left on the vegetable garden over winter and worked into the soil in the spring. A 5 cm layer of leaves can be left over the soil in the flower garden as long as no perennials are covered. Shredded leaves would be better, if available.

So lesson learned for this year. Even if we need snowsuits, I should still try to get as many leaves up off that grass as possible–and be sure not to drown my perennials.

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.