Gardening Blog

A preview of Toronto Botanical Garden’s annual garden tour

Garden tours are such a wonderful way to a) gather ideas for your own garden and b) snoop around in some pretty amazing backyards. Last week, I had the opportunity to sneak a peek at five of the 19 gardens that will be open to those who purchase a ticket to Through The Garden Gate. (One- and two-day passes are available.) This is the 26th annual fundraiser for Toronto Botanical Garden’s popular tour, which takes place June 8 and 9. This year, you get to traipse around Forest Hill and South Hill – not a bad way to spend a weekend. And, new this year, a couple of food trucks will park themselves outside tour headquarters (at Bishop Strachan School, 298 Lonsdale Rd.) to feed hungry guests who need a break.

More details and ticket information can be found on the Toronto Botanical Garden website.

Here are some highlights from the gardens I previewed:

This was the first garden on our tour. It was such a private, tranquil yard. I loved the seating area on the other side of the pool, a perfect place to curl up with a book.

There were some beautiful gardens ringing this arts-and-crafts house, but the greenhouse was the star of the show!

This was probably my favourite garden. It was just so unique, filled with various art pieces, and with a really interesting planting style.

I love how the steel rods mimic a fence here. There is space between the "fence" and the real privacy fence that hides the yard from the street.

This yard was another treat. The owner led me into the back garden and explained how she's been at it for about 19 years. The garden has evolved and now includes a small patch of grass for her grandchild.

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!

 

Gettin’ figgy with it at the RBG

Last year, as my husband and I were exploring our new area on a Sunday drive (we had moved the previous fall), we drove by a non-descript house that had a cardboard sign out front that read: Fig Trees for Sale. “That’s interesting,” I said. “I didn’t think you could grow figs in Ontario.”

Shortly thereafter, I ran into a fellow garden writer, Steven Biggs, who told me he had written a book called Grow Figs Where You Think You Can’t. A copy of the book showed up on my desk one day when I was at the office (thanks, Steven!). I looked through it right away, excited at the prospect of growing such a seemingly exotic edible.

Fast forward to this spring when Steven mentioned he was going to be giving a talk on growing figs at the Royal Botanical Garden. My husband and I registered and showed up, notebooks in hand. It turns out we weren’t the only ones intrigued by fig trees. Steven spoke to a captivated and engaged audience who asked him questions throughout. Steven is very knowledgeable and passionate about his topic, so we really enjoyed ourselves. After the class, we stuck around so I could tell him so, and he gave me one of the fig cuttings he’d brought along to show the class. It’s a Verte, also sold under the name Green Ischia. My husband decided to name it Wilbur.

When we first brought a dormant Wilbur home, it was still pretty cold out, so we kept him in the garage. At that point he looked like a twig (see below).

Here's a pic my husband took of Wilbur. It doesn't look very exciting, but we were tickled that we got to bring a fig tree home.

Then when the weather finally started warming up, he grew a couple of leaves. This past weekend we repotted him in a nice container that we’ll display out front of our house where there’s lots of sun. You see, fig trees also make really nice ornamental plants. Steven says he plants his all around his patio.

Wilbur looking happy in his new pot. We've staked him to a dowl to straighten him out. But don't worry, it doesn't hurt!

If you’re looking to grow a fig tree, there are a couple of places where you can buy them. Steven recommended a nursery in the Niagara area called Grimo Nut Nursery. President’s Choice is also offering a hardy Chicago fig tree at their garden centres this season.

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

Previewing President’s Choice plants

When the outdoor garden centre suddenly appears in my local Fortinos parking lot, I know that it’s time to plant (or almost time). Last week I got to preview what these garden centres (Fortinos, Loblaws, etc.) will be selling at an event to launch the garden edition of the President’s Choice Insider’s Report. By the way, the report officially comes out today!

I’ve had some great luck with President’s Choice plants over the years. Favourites include the Gigantico columnar basil, which keeps me well-stocked with pesto through the winter, a strawberry hanging basket that produced strawberries for me all last summer and the dahlinovas, which are stunning in containers.

Here are some of the plants I’m looking forward to trying in my garden this year:

PC Gigantico Begonia, Go-Go Rose Bicolor: These two-toned beauties are destined for my containers!

PC Campanula Purple Get Mee: The purple blooms on this perennial are supposed to come back until the fall. I'm hoping to create a lush carpet of purple in one area of my garden.

PC Heuchera Amber Lady: This is my first heuchera. I love how all the rich colour is in the foliage - no blooms required!

PC Miniature Fountain Grass - Burgundy Bunny: I can't wait to see how this grass turns to a rich burgundy shade later in the season.

PC Pixie Grape Pinot Meunier Hardy Vine: I'm curious to see how many grapes this dwarf grapevine will produce. Not enough to make wine, I'm sure, but hopefully enough to eat!

PC Might 'Mato: What I'm probably most curious about planting is the Mighty 'Mato, a grafted tomato plant that will likely grow to be taller than me. The one at the preview was enormous. I brought home three to try.

PC Shrimp Braid: I probably won't get one this year, but I'd be remiss if I didn't show this intriguing tropical plant. You can display it outdoors over the summer and then bring it inside come winter.

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!

 

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.

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