Gardening Blog

Eco-gardening lessons I’ve learned this week

ecologicalgardeningcoverI’ve been reading Ecological Gardening by Marjorie Harris on the subway. I love it because it’s trade paperback-sized–perfect for my purse–and it’s so conversational, you don’t even realize you’re reading non-fiction sometimes. The Globe and Mail wrote that “the facts come across as if from a helpful conversation with a good friend.” I need to remember to keep a pad of sticky notes in my purse to mark all the pages I want to come back to. I really want to strive to make my garden as healthy as possible and I’m so excited about what I’ve been learning.

Here are some of the facts I have learned from my new friend Marjorie:

  • Dandelions only grow in fertile, balanced soil. Their crazy long roots can actually bring nutrients from deep in the soil up to the surface. This is good news because I have a ton in my backyard and now I don’t feel so bad. They can also apparently help the growth of other flowers.
  • Watering thoroughly once a week is better for the plants than shallowly watering each day–except for containers which sometimes need to be watered twice a day.
  • Not all ants are bad. The other day some of the buds on one of my flowering perennials (I’m not sure what it is, but it has electric-blue frilly petals) had these little ants on them. I was a little alarmed at first, but according to Marjorie, they were sipping the sap from the buds, which isn’t harmful. Also, some of the other ugly beasties I’ve seen in my garden aren’t at all bad, so I need to make friends with them, too.
  • I think one of the best pieces of advice I have taken away this week from the book is to feed the soil, not the plant. If a plant is suffering and you’ve done all the things you’re supposed to–watering, given it adequate light, etc.–your problem likely lies in the soil and what it might be lacking. Marjorie provides lots of easy troubleshooting tips for amending your soil.

This weekend I hope to tackle my monster rose bush with the brand new rose gloves I got from my sister for my birthday.

Here are a couple of excerpts from Marjorie’s book on CanadianGardening.com:

Texture in the shade

img_2915Many of us who garden on a city plot have to contend with a fair amount of shade. Some gardeners think this means saying buh-bye to colour, but that’s not true. There’s so much you can plant to add oomph to even the darkest, dankest corners. (My front garden is a special challenge, for there I deal with the dreaded dry shade, thanks to a moisture-wicking, nutrient-sucking Schwedler Norway maple, which thrives on a tiny patch of ground.) So out I went with my camera, to give you a few examples of what I mean. The main photo at left shows the emerging lower foliage of a ‘Golden Shadows’ pagoda dogwood, as seen against the dark green of periwinkle, now in bloom.

When it comes to shade, texture is the name of the game. Texture can mean a play on green, as well as an interplay of other colours. The photo just below, far left, is a corner that has several oakleaf hydrangeas (which really need a bit more sun, but oh well. Pee-gee types do better and give me loads of blooms in late summer.). In spring, Leucojeum ‘Gravetye Giant’ adds its tall, snowdrop-like blooms to those of variegated and plain solomon’s seal. This is underplanted with green-and-white-striped sedge (Carex ‘Ice Dance’) and Lamium ‘White Nancy.’ img_29061img_29271Nearby is a healthy clump of the brunnera called ‘Jack Frost,’ whose silvery leaves look fabulous throughout the season. Above all is that trusty standby, an old, shapely redtwig dogwood (Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’) with its green-and-white variegated leaves. So greens, whites and silvers lighten and brighten up this area.

Two other plants I find most useful in both gardens are various types of heuchera and perennial geranium (near left), especially Geranium macrorrhizum cultivars, which handle the shade with aplomb and reward me with pretty blooms in spring and nice foliage throughout the season.

img_2912img_2910And I can’t praise barrenwort (Epimedium spp., far left) enough. Also known as bishop’s hat, this plant is very happy in my garden. I have the rosy, purply and yellow types. The flowers are dainty but it’s the foliage I really like. Small, delicate and airy, it combines well with other shapes and doesn’t overpower (you really want to avoid the “moundy roundy” look you can get with a surfeit of heucheras and perennial geraniums).

Like many shade gardeners, I’m mad about ferns. Here is ‘Lady in Red’ (near left) in my front garden, where the soil is a constant battle for it really wants to be nothing more than dust, so I have to amend it like mad. The purple leaves growing through it are Lysimachia ‘Firecracker,’ which proved to be horribly invasive in the back but is just fine here, and easy to hoick out if it gets too rambunctious. In fact, I shifted other invasives to the front, including gooseneck loosestrife and lily-of-the-valley. Both are surprisingly well-behaved and haven’t overwhelmed the more polite plants, which just shows how bad the conditions out there really are.

img_29343The Japanese painted fern (far left) is one of my favourites. I have a fine clump of them in the back, near a Japanese maple and a dark-burgundy-leafed ‘Diabolo’ ninebark, and the veins of the ferns echo the deep burgundy. It took a few years for these ferns to get established with any sort of vigour, so don’t lose heart if yours look poopy. They’ll come along. However, they haven’t done well in the front garden, where the fierce roots of the Norway maple make life a real struggle for all but the most determined (and shallow rooted) of plants. Others that don’t do well out in the front include hostas, which need more room for their roots, so they stay small and sulky.

img_2909Another fabulous fern is the maidenhair (near left), with its graceful, black, wiry stems. This clump resides in the back near some hellebores and an arching and very thorny Acanthopanax sieboldianus. The leaf-and-frond shapes complement each other nicely. And I’m working on a green-and-gold corner that’s just starting to knit together. It’s basically a combo of golden Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’), ‘Bowles Golden’ sedge, various green-and-gold hostas, and so forth.

img_29351Note the Japanese forest grass is a slow grower, and takes awhile to become established. But it’s worth the wait. For without help, this area could be dark and miserable. Though still a bit sparse, the golden tones do much to brighten things up. In spring, the creamy yellow, fragrant ‘Elizabeth’ magnolia nearby is underplanted with yellow-flowered barrenwort and daffodils. It does my heart good to see them.

What a difference a long weekend can make

Despite the rather chilly temperatures this past long weekend, I still managed to get out in the garden and cross a few tasks off my list. It's not very often I have two straight days in a row to get things done. So with a new pink pair of gardening gloves that I got for my birthday, I set out with my basket of tools to weed, plant, prune and dig.

This is what left me with a sense of accomplishment:

  1. We planted two five to six-foot cedars: I bought these about a month ago and have been waiting for a chance to dig them in. Fingers crossed that they make it. They still look lovely and green.
  2. I dug out a ton of dandelions and other annoying weeds that magically appeared after all that rain we got these last couple of weeks. Talk about eco-friendly pest control, it was also a workout!
  3. Give my boyfriend a pair of loppers or pruning shears and I come back to a twig with a root, so I kindly pointed out what I wanted pruned and how. Lorraine Flanigan`s article on how to prune spring-flowering shrubs, was helpful for my forsythias.
  4. I spread around some compost in a couple of my beds to prepare them for the lovely plants I have in store for them.
  5. I'm not sure if it was the fungus gnats or the fact that they'd outgrown the little peat pellets, but all of a sudden, my seedlings were looking sad and limp–and they didn't need water. So I transplanted my seedlings into bigger pots until I'll be able to plant them right into the garden.
  6. I have always felt bad about tossing away those wooden mandarin orange containers, so this winter I kept them because I knew they'd come in handy for something. And in one of them I planted salad greens. Yesterday the squirrels made a couple of holes in it, but if things start to grow, I’ll take a picture.
  7. I had some herb plants I was trying to protect from frost, but I just couldn't wait any longer, so I planted them.
  8. I dug out a ton of lily of the valley and their network of roots–they are so pretty and smell so nice, but they're a pain in the butt every spring when they're in the middle of my garden and I'm wanting to plant things. So I had to be ruthless.

And that sums up my list. A few tasks down, a few hundred to go!

My poor, swarmed seedlings

The other day, I wrote about horror movie I woke up to when I saw my precious seedlings swarming with flies. I immediately wrote to Anne Marie to solve my bug dilemma. Apparently the mini “fruit flies” are really fungus gnats and are a frequent greenhouse or indoor garden occurrence. Anne Marie says they are more of a people nuisance than a plant pest problem, especially when several fly up in your face when you are watering your plants.

Here are Anne Marie’s tips for eliminating my fungus gnat problem:

  • Soils that are high in organic matter and are kept damp are particularly attractive to fungus gnats. The entire life cycle lasts about 4 weeks.
  • The best way to reduce the population of fungus gnats is to let the soil dry out between waterings and especially on the surface.
  • A more effective method is to cover and seal the soil area with plastic wrap (or a thick inorganic mulch) to prevent the adults from getting to the soil and laying more eggs.
  • If needed, yellow sticky cards can be purchased to monitor the number of fungus gnats around plants. Place the yellow cards near the soil surface.
  • Investigate any open bags of soil before using them to see if they are harbouring fungus gnats.
  • The potentially damaging part of the life cycle is the young larvae. These look like small, white worm-like things that are 5 mm long and feed on the roots of plants.
  • It is only if they are numerous that they cause any problems for plants (and mainly young seedlings or greenhouse transplants). The adults are the dark mini flies that like to be pests and fly in your face.

So, I’m going to try and let them dry out a little and I’m going to pick up some of the yellow sticky tape. My sister had to buy some recently because she brought home an herb with a white fly problem.

Jessica Ross, over at EcoLogic on Homemakers’ site is having a different problem. Her seedlings aren’t growing anymore.

Is anyone out there having problems with their seedlings?

Attack of the mini flies!

Help! I brought in some plants the other night because of the frost warning and the next day my seedlings were swarming with what looked like mini fruit flies! I’ve asked Anne Marie Van Nest to come to the rescue and will let you know when I hear back about her advice! Sigh. And some of them were doing so well!

The plot thickens

img_2889Of all the seasons, my grandmother loved spring the best. I’ve always been an autumn girl myself, but as I grow older I’m growing more partial toward spring as well. It’s a celebration of renewal; nature’s annual affirmation of faith in the future of this planet.

As you can see by this photo of a corner of my back garden taken this morning, everything is growing by leaps and bounds. Later in the season my patch will mostly be in shade, but I’ve learned to embrace this.

So what should you be planting right now? I’ve carefully put in a few more ferns and hostas, but cautious Clara here is keeping a watchful eye on other emerging perennials before I plant more stuff, because it’s oh-so-so easy to be over-hasty and dig up or damage plants that are simply slow to get started.

And personally, I never buy tender annuals until after Victoria Day, which is early this year. This week, Toronto has had some nippy nights with frost warnings, so I’ll likely wait awhile before I go shopping for my favourite tuberous begonias, which are such beautiful plants for shade. Use your judgment and don’t buy too early if it’s cold where you live.

A corner of my front woodland garden.

A corner of my front woodland garden.

But there’s absolutely no need to feel gardening-deprived. Because across much of the country this is the ideal time to put in perennials, shrubs, trees and evergreens; in fact, you really want to shop for those as early as possible for the best selection. One caveat–to optimize sales, perennials in nurseries and garden centres are often forced into full bloom out of their normal cycle. Keep this in mind when shopping. Once established, unless it’s an early spring perennial such as brunnera, it’s unlikely your plant will bloom at this time in your garden. Nor will all your plants bloom at once! It’s best to do a bit of research before you buy so you can plan for a sequence of bloom throughout the season. And once you’re at the nursery, choose perennials that are bushy and compact with strong stems and loads of growing points and buds, as opposed to tall and lanky and in full bloom.

It goes without saying that spring is a very busy time for garden centres. Once there, even super-organized gardeners with itemized lists are likely to be seduced by something fabulous and unexpected, but that’s part of the fun.

Aimg_28661s a master gardener, part of my commitment involves putting in a minimum of 30 volunteer hours a year. And there’s nothing nicer than doing that while being surrounded by top-quality plants. So in the past several weeks I’ve had the pleasure of advising gardeners at Islington Nurseries in the city’s west end, and helping at the Toronto Botanical Garden‘s plant sale, which was held last week. Paul Zammit, the new director of horticulture at the TBG, brought in some dandy plants. Some of the choicest specimens were scooped up by the mad keen plant nerds on Day One, but there was plenty from which to choose on Day Two as well, which is when I put in my shift. One of the biggest bargains there was this magnificent serviceberry clump, which I scooped up for my daughter’s garden. The price? Just $19.99. I should have bought more.

Good Ideas for Small Spaces

Every spring, Loblaw companies generously invites garden journalists from Toronto and southern Ontario to a luncheon and preview of their new President’s Choice plants, garden equipment, accessories and decor (to check where they’re available in your area, go to presidentschoice.ca). There are always some good ideas to take away, not to mention armloads of fabulous plants they give us plant piggies to trial at home.

This year, a couple of things struck me as being great for gardeners with limited space, such as a tiny urban lot or a balcony.

One of these is a President’s Choice clematis that offers two types in one pot. Developed by Britain’s famous Raymond Evison, it’s guaranteed for one year and sells for $24.99; mine combines wine-red Rebecca with periwinkle-blue Cezanne, both hardy to Zone 4. Double the colour punch, but takes up the same space as an ordinary clematis.

Another smart idea is a handsome, square planter of herbs. The one I picked up is ready-planted with sage, rosemary, thyme, parsley and chives–just the thing to pop on the back deck near my kitchen. (Or on your apartment balcony?)

img_2892However, my favourite item, shown here at the side of my house, is this compact, rectangular rain barrel. I bought it yesterday for $74.99 on sale at my local Loblaw store, and will hook it up to my downspout this week. I don’t have enough space for one of those huge round standard-sized rain barrels, but this is just the job, and will help keep rain away from the foundation of my house. The brown colour blends in with the brick of my house, but you could always paint it something else with one of the new paints that adhere to plastic, such as Krylon Fusion.

And of course, there’s nothing better than soft rain water for your plants.

Mother’s Day gift ideas for gardeners

Now I can’t tell you what I’m getting my mom (because hopefully she reads my blog, like every day), but I can share some neat products I sourced for a Mother’s Day article.

What are you buying for your mom this year?

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.

New blooms to add to my spring shopping list

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending a President’s Choice Lawn & Garden event in Toronto’s historic Distillery District. I get my plants and garden products from a wide variety of nurseries and stores each year, but the PC brand is always very convenient because there is a nursery set up at my local grocery store. The plants are also exclusively from Canadian growers, which is an added bonus.

Besides the lovely plant selection, there were patio vignettes set up by interior stylist Janette Ewen showcasing some of the neat pots and solar lights that will also be on sale at Loblaw stores.

Here are some of the plants that will be on my spring shopping list!

Bourbon Clematis: This lovely climber will grow three or four feet and has a brilliant red and fuchsia bloom.

Bourbon Clematis: This lovely climber will grow three or four feet and has brilliant red and fuchsia blooms.

Here's a mouthful--these gorgeous grasses, "Hakonechloa macra Aureola," will become infused with pinks and reds in the fall.

These gorgeous grasses, "Hakonechloa macra Aureola," will become infused with pinks and reds in the fall.

Attract butterflies to your yard with Lo & Behold this mini breed buddleia--or butterfly bush.

Attract butterflies to your yard with Lo & Behold, this mini breed buddleia--or butterfly bush.

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

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