Gardening Blog

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

10 ways to celebrate Earth Day in the garden

Today the media will be focused on Earth Day and the multitude of events happening across the country to bring awareness to environmental issues. Check out the Earth Day Canada site for a list of events happening in your community.

Now when it comes to your garden, I think every day should be Earth Day. I'm definitely trying to think green throughout my yard. My rain barrel collects lots of useful water, my seeds this year are all heirloom, organic varieties and I don't use toxic chemicals to eliminate pests or weeds.

I know this sounds so cliché, but even small steps can make a big difference. Here are some ways you can go “green” in your yard.

1. Support the ban on cosmetic pesticides. Just in time for Earth Day, Ontario will be the second province to ban more than 250 chemical pesticide products (Quebec was the first). Encourage the decision makers in your province to follow suit!

2. Hook up a rain barrel. This is such an easy way to conserve water and there are lots of nice-looking barrels on the market these days.

3. Explore organic ways to fertilize your garden. Learn how to nurture your garden naturally with this excerpt from Marjorie Harris’ new book, Ecological Gardening.

4. Learn how to make your own compost. This is so cool–you can literally make your own dirt. This is one of my resolutions as my composter currently has nothing but old sod in it.

5. Attract bees to your yard. Bees are essential to the very survival of our plants. Lure them in with bee-friendly flowers and this neat little home.

6. Determine how eco-friendly your garden is. See you're your garden and gardening practices rate on an enviro-friendly scale.

7. Return plastic plant pots. Sadly, most Blue Box programs do not recycle your plant pots. However if you purchase your flowers from a President’s Choice garden centre, they will take back your pots to recycle them. Plus, if you return 25 pots or flats, you will receive a coupon for $5 off a garden purchase of $50 or more.

8. Wean your lawn off chemicals. There are plenty of options on the market now to replace all those lawn chemicals of yore. But wouldn’t it be nice to stop worrying about that elusive, immaculate square of land and fill it with something fun instead?

9. Experiment with native plants. Choose plants that are native to your area that can easily adapt to the conditions of your garden.

10. Replace old garden gear with new eco options. If you’re in the market for some new tools and garden paraphernalia, test drive one of these “green” toys.

Majestic landscapes, amazing plants

img_2737Located some 50 miles east of Phoenix off Highway 60 (and much of it a spectacular drive), the Boyce Thompson Arboretum is a worthy stop for plant lovers who are visiting Arizona. (I do think the name is a bit of a misnomer, as this place felt more like a botanical garden than an arboretum, which I associate with being mostly about trees.)

img_27491Literature about the arboretum says its chief attraction is its system of more than two miles of nature trails that weave through various garden areas.

These areas offer a diverse palette of plants–some 3,200 different types belonging to 306 genera in 76 families–on a 320-acre site. And it’s a butterfly magnet and bird-lovers’ delight, attracting hundreds of species.

img_26932The day I was there, wildflowers and spring blooms abounded in the demonstration garden (one view shown here), proving the desert landscape isn’t just all cacti and offering plenty of colourful inspiration to Arizona homeowners for their own gardens.

img_2697Hummingbirds flitted around the penstemon and Mexican redbud (above). Elsewhere, Lady Banks’ rose literally smothered several arbours with its dainty yellow, though unscented, flowers. Magic.

I spent several happy hours hiking the main loop trail that took me up and down through hill and dale and several microclimates.

High up was true desert mesa (the elevation in the garden is 2,400 feet) with sweeping vistas and plants that tolerate extreme drought, while lower down I saw lush stands of various trees, including olive and pomegranate (flower shown here), along the more temperate edge of Queen Creek.img_27521

The main trail is fine to tackle if you’re reasonably fit, though there are easier, shorter trails, too–some are wheelchair-accessible. A bottle of water, sunscreen, sturdy walking shoes and a broad-brimmed hat are musts–the sun is fierce!

The arboretum is open every day except Christmas. To find out more, visit www.ag.arizona.edu/bta

Below are more photographs from my visit. Next up: the magic of spring.

Chilean palo verde (Geoffrea decorticans)

Chilean palo verde (Geoffrea decorticans)

An allee of river red gum trees (Eucalyptus camaldulensis)

An allee of river red gum trees (Eucalyptus camaldulensis)

Boojum (Idrium columnaris)

Boojum (Idrium columnaris)

Easter lily cactus bloom (Echinopsis spp.)

Easter lily cactus bloom (Echinopsis spp.)

Monstrose totem pole (front)  (Lophocereus spp.)

Monstrose totem pole (front) (Lophocereus spp.)

A week ago today…

I wish I knew what kind of butterfly this was!

I wish I knew what kind of butterfly this was!

A week ago today I was in Las Vegas and amid all the casinos, glitz, monuments and fountains, I managed to find a botanical garden at the Bellagio.

This cute ladybug was made of carnations! Or were they roses? It was hard to tell...

This cute ladybug was made of carnations! Or were they roses? It was hard to tell...

With “140 horticulturists on staff,” the Bellagio Conservatory and Botanical Gardens changes its exhibits about five times a year and I have to say their current display was one of the highlights of my trip–and best of all, it was free!

These watering cans were really cool!

These watering cans were really cool!

I had to tear myself away from the butterfly exhibit–they were magnificent and so much bigger than the butterflies you see here in Ontario. My pictures certainly don’t do this imaginative space justice, but I thought I’d share some anyway to give you a peek.

Take a look at the website linked above for more fab photos. You can even see past exhibits.

My first heavy-duty garden purchase of the season

I felt so proud of myself this evening when I purchased two healthy-looking cedar trees for my backyard along with my groceries. You see there may or may not be an enormous second story eventually being built on the house behind us and I need to start planning (and planting!) some extra privacy pronto. Currently there is an old chain link fence separating our yards with some sad, spindly little cedars steadfastly growing around the middle of it. I want to eventually fill in that whole back area and these shapely cedars seemed to be a good start.

However for some reason my garden ambition clouded my judgment and I didn’t realize quite how tall and heavy these cedars would be. A very helpful young air cadet graciously left his money box with a friend and helped me drag the first cedar into the back floor of my little hatchback. After much maneuvering we finally got it in. I thanked him profusely even though he called me ma’am and decided I’d come back with some strong arms for the second tree.

Both are now safely in my backyard awaiting their destiny as a privacy fence. And I am hoping I can lift my arms tomorrow.

Holy jumpin’ cholla!

img_2669I’m sorry I’ve been offline for so long. My trip to Arizona was abruptly aborted when I had to rush to my mother’s hospital bedside in California. She’s now stable and I’m finally home in Toronto, and in the right frame of mind to bring you up to date on my travels.

In the next little while, I’ll post a few pages on the stunning topography and plants of Arizona. Although my trip was cut short, I did manage to visit an interesting arboretum east of Phoenix, take several walks in the desert and see the Chiricahua National Monument with its fantastic rock formations.

img_2671img_2672My friends Karen and Michael made me very welcome in their home in northern Scottsdale. Some of the barrel and prickly pear cactuses surrounding their property were just starting to bloom, although I was a week or two too early for the full-on spring bloom of the desert.

img_26731Their garden has a pretty pool and a spa (main photo, above), and right outside its walls is the open desert landscape, with its wonderful plants, including majestic old Saguaro cactuses (left), but also rattlesnakes, coyotes and javelinas, or collared peccaries. These nearsighted, smelly, sometimes aggressive omnivores look a bit like a wild boar, but aren’t really a member of the pig family. Although I didn’t come across one, it’s always a good idea to carry a long, stout walking stick just in case.

On one of our morning walks, Karen cautioned me not to get too close to the jumping chollas (pronounced CHOY-yuh). Legend has it this spiny group of cacti can sense your body heat and launch themselves at you, sinking into your skin with long, barbed, painful spines and tenaciously hanging on. Ouch. While this isn’t strictly true, they do propagate by attaching plantlets to anything–animal or human–that even lightly brushes against them.

img_2674The photograph I’ve posted here (left) is of the teddy bear cholla (Opuntia bigelovii). If you look closely, you can see a few plantlets around its base that are taking root.

The best defence against chollas is to give them a wide berth. If you do get one stuck on you, it’s recommended that you use a comb to catch and flick it away. As for me, I got some stuck in my walking shoe and had to use stout pliers to pull out the spines. Michael had a cholla attach itself to his calf while playing golf–at first he thought he’d been bitten by a rattlesnake.

You’ve been warned.

Next: Majestic landscapes, amazing plants

Hey, what happened to spring?

crocusblueflowersYesterday was a beautiful and sunny day, so I took a stroll around my yard with my camera to see if anything was growing yet. My irises and tulips are peeking through the leaves in my garden and I snapped this little crocus poking up on my neighbour’s lawn! In the backyard I found these sweet little blue flowers growing against my fence. I started dreaming of finally being able to get outside and preparing my yard for spring.
And then this morning, alas, it was snowing. I knew there had to be at least one more storm before we were allowed to enjoy spring, but things were looking so promising I thought we might escape winter’s last gasp.

daffodil3Luckily, I purchased daffodils last week to support the Canadian Cancer Society, so spring still exists in my kitchen. They were certainly a welcome sight this morning when I woke up to a raging storm!I just hope those little flowers survive this frosty weather.

Starting my seeds

Our seed packets

Our seed packets

My seeds finally arrived and last weekend my sister and I split them up so we can each test our green thumbs and nurture little seedlings into food this season. Today I got around to planting some of the seeds that can be started indoors (and as an experiment, some of the ones that recommend you start them outside–what can I say, I'm impatient!). I'm so excited to see what will decide to grow!

Here's what I have started:

  • Chives
  • Florence Fennel
  • Black Hungarian Hot Pepper
  • `Champion` Collards
  • Cilantro
  • Mesclun Greens
  • Black Calypso Bush Bean
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