Gardening Blog

Load up the leaves

There’s a park around the corner from where I live, and in it grow a number of big, old oak trees. Although there was a cold drizzle this morning when I took this photo, I did notice most of their leaves are finally down. On the next dry day, I plan to head over there to rake some up into big, clear plastic bags to take home.

People think I’m bonkers when they see me doing this, but I don’t care. And yes, dogs frolic freely there, so I’ll wear my sturdy old rubber gloves just in case I come across any…well, you know.

Some of these leaves will be flung atop the garden beds right now to keep plants cozy over winter. (I’ve often wondered why people scrape every last leaf off their beds. Take a cue from nature–you don’t see any leaf-blower-wielding gnomes in the forest, do you? And besides, would you want to sleep naked and uncovered on a cold winter’s night? Of course not, and neither do your plants.) Next spring, those that haven’t decomposed will be raked up and put into a couple of old plastic garbage cans, where they’ll continue to break down into leaf mould. I’m never too fastidious about their removal, for even if I do nothing, by early summer the earthworms will have pulled most of them down into the soil.

A few bags of leaves will be stashed behind the shed at the rear of the garden, which is hidden behind a partial fence in the no-go zone I call the “back 40.” Here you will also find my composters, some old pots, bits and bobs, this and that and a big pile of discarded flowering plants and annuals–overflow that won’t fit into the composters). It’s a bit like having a very useful, giant junk drawer in my garden. Next spring and summer, a portion of the bagged oak leaves will be trotted out and used as brown matter in my composters and as mulch where needed.

I like most leaves, but I especially prize oak because unlike many other types, such as Norway maple, they don’t get all soggy and matted down when wet. They stay crisp and separate. Some gardeners believe oak leaves lower the pH of the soil, but my feeling is their effect is minimal. Still, the evergreens in my garden do seem to appreciate these leaves piled around their roots, so who am I to argue?

Wear your poppies

In honour of Remembrance Day and the brave soldiers who fought for our freedom, here's a little background of how the red poppy became our way to commemorate this special day.

After John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields was published in 1915, the poppy became a popular symbol for soldiers who died in battle.

McRae was a brigade-surgeon to the First Brigade of the Canadian Forces Artillery in World War I. The day before he wrote his famous poem, one of McCrae’s closest friends was killed in the fighting and buried in a makeshift grave with a simple wooden cross. Wild poppies were already beginning to bloom between the crosses marking the many graves. Unable to help his friend or any of the others who had died, John McCrae gave them a voice through his poem.

The poppy of wartime remembrance is the red corn poppy, Papaver rhoeas. This self-seeding wildflower grows extensively in Europe and flourishes in cultivated, disturbed soil, which is why you see it throughout many a field.

Golden days

Here in Toronto, we’ve been having the most fantastic week of beautiful weather. Blue sky days with wonderful golden light, and foliage colours so radiant and vivid they almost look electric. I took this photo from the deck off my bedroom, which is on the third floor of my house. The neighbour’s silver maple was looking at its autumn best, untouched as yet by the inevitable and cruel November winds that will surely come soon to shake its branches and loosen the leaves. (I had to laugh listening to Tom Allen on CBC Radio Two Morning, who remarked on how it was so Canadian to rejoice in great weather but somehow not to trust it, needing to mutter darkly about paying the price for it later, etc. So true.)

Anyway, I was out there emptying the last of the annuals out of their pots before it got too cold to do it comfortably (the deck faces west and gets great afternoon light, but also the prevailing wind, so it can get pretty darn nippy out there if you leave these jobs too late). Once emptied, the pots were stacked in a corner where I can’t see them through the sliding door, while the potted junipers and cedars were grouped where I can. I lightly bound up the junipers with garden twine to keep their branches from being pulled down by snow, watered the evergreens within an inch of their lives and mulched. If the weather stays warm, I’ll keep giving them big drinks until the cold sets in.

Out in the garden, I planted some pure white bulbs sent to me by my friend Sally Ferguson of the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center. In went crocuses, species tulips, hyacinthoides, alliums and more, and the thought of them emerging next spring, joining the plethora of other bulbs already out there, will keep me smiling through another long, grey Toronto winter.

In the front, the autumn pots were definitely looking past their sell-by date, so I yanked out the spent plants and popped fresh dogwood branches in one and curly willow branches in another, then topped things off with moss and stones. Presto! Talk about a five-minute facelift. If only there was something that worked this quickly and easily on humans.

Can you pick veggies after a frost?

As you may have read, I had a real problem with my tomatoes this past season…they were so late! I managed to pick (and eat!) a few juicy, delicious beefsteaks and plums, but there were still some pretty green ones hanging out on the vine.

Then we got a sprinkling of snow and a few days of frost here and there. What to do?

According to Anne Marie, some of the slightly cold-tolerant vegetables can be picked after a frost. Apparently some even taste better (parsnips, rutabaga, kale, chard) if they are harvested after the first light frost (or two). Other cold tolerant veggies include carrots, cabbage, turnip, leeks, spinach, some lettuce, kohlrabi, broccoli and Brussels sprouts.

Others, such as tomatoes, cucumbers and summer squash, do not tolerate a frost and should be picked before the freezing temperatures.

When I was out raking this weekend, I grabbed the last of my tomatillos (which still seemed OK) and a promising looking tomato, which I'm happy to say is turning a happy shade of red on my windowsill.

For the rest, I'm going to try my luck at wrapping them in newspaper as Anne Marie suggested to see if they ripen on their own. Hopefully it's not too late!

Tips from the pros–part two

As promised, in this post I’ll touch on a few tips for flower arranging and container design given by experts in Canadian Gardening‘s Green Room at the recent Style at Home show.

Elene Nouri and Jennifer Christiani, custom designers at Sheridan Nurseries’ Scarborough store, had some excellent advice on creating winter container arrangements. They securely tape a block of floral foam (such as Oasis) to the top of the soil in a container, which allows them to create a more layered, three-dimensional and fuller arrangement, as they can then insert greens and branches sideways into the foam as well as straight down into the soil. They advise soaking the floral foam in water to which they add a little liquid Sta-Fresh, a preservative, for half an hour before attaching it to the container, as this makes it less brittle and crumbly and easier to work with. After greens are arranged, they spritz their foliage with Sta-Fresh spray to further prevent them from growing yellow and bedraggled-looking. Once temperatures drop, the floral foam will freeze and hold branches securely in place.

Kate Seaver of Kate’s Garden had some great advice for keeping cut roses fresh. When you get your roses home, cut their stems at an angle and put them into lukewarm water with a bit of flower food. An angled (not straight across) cut allows the free circulation of water and nutrients up the stem. Be sure to strip off any foliage that would sit below the water line, as it will start to decay (this holds true for any cut flower). Change the water in the vase every two days, add a bit of flower food and cut the stems a bit each time. Pick off outer rose petals if they look spent.

If your roses’ flower heads suddenly droop, it doesn’t mean they’re dead, it likely means there’s an air bubble in the stem. To cure this, recut stems, lie the roses flat in a sink and add lukewarm water until flowers are covered (if your sink is too small, use the bathtub). Leave roses immersed in water for about 20 minutes, and they should perk right up again.

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.

My toad lily blooms at last

Last summer at a family barbecue, my Uncle Mike was so excited to dig up some of his plants for my garden. He grabbed some empty plastic pots and sent me home with a few perennials. Sadly, a couple of them didn't make it, but this past spring, up bloomed the sweet purple and white faces of my Johnny Jump-Ups.

The other plant I was anxious about was my toad lily. It grew fairly high last summer, but didn't bloom, and I wasn't sure if it would come back. I left the stalk in the ground to mark its place and once spring arrived, a promising little seedling found its way up beside it.

This summer, that little seedling grew so high I had to tie it to a stake so it didn't grow sideways. Until recently, it had yet to bloom. A few weeks ago, these little purple buds started to appear. I was so worried they wouldn't flower–especially after the light flurries we got the other day. But two days later, I headed outside, and there in the warm fall sun were a few dainty spotted blooms. My photo doesn't really do these cute little flowers justice. I can't describe how elated I felt to see them. My uncle passed away this spring, so I feel so happy that these flowers are in my garden to remind me of him and how excited he was to share his plants.

I dedicate this post to my uncle who loved to garden.

Tips from the pros–part one

Canadian Gardening‘s Green Room at last weekend’s Style at Home Show was a busy place. The glorious plants in all their autumn glory, lent to us courtesy of Sheridan Nurseries, drew many admirers. And as the organizer of much of the programming and master (mistress?) of ceremonies on Saturday and Sunday, I had the opportunity to listen to some super-knowledgeable speakers. Here are some snippets of good advice they offered. Look for my next post for info on flower arranging and creating winter container displays.

Dugald Cameron (of gardenimport.com) informed us that fall is the best time to plant (or divide) your peonies. The reason? This is the only time of year they show their “eyes”–those little white bud-like affairs seen just below the soil surface when you dig them up. Any divisions must have at least one eye, though several are preferable (Dugald often goes for four). When you plant your peony, make sure its eyes are level and positioned 1 1/2 to 2 inches below the soil. It’s also not too late to plant many spring bulbs. (Of course, this depends on where you garden–here in the Toronto area [mostly Zone 5 and 6] many hard-core, forgetful or procrastinating gardeners don’t even think about planting their tulips or lilies until November.)

Charlie Dobbin demonstrated a lasagna-type layered planting of spring bulbs in a large frostproof container, which then gets buried underground (or stored in a dark root cellar if you happen to have one). Here, you’re forcing the bulbs to come into bloom earlier than they would when planted in the ground, so that in very early spring, you can excavate the pot outdoors, put it in a prominent place in your patio or garden and enjoy waves of spring blooms for six weeks or more (those lucky folks with root cellars need only move their pot up to a bright spot indoors for a grand show). Charlie says, “make sure the container has drainage holes, and use a commercial potting mix. Start with about four inches of soil, then place the largest bulbs at the bottom of the pot and ignore the advice on spacing. Just jam them in, cover with about 4 inches of soil then add another layer of bulbs in the same way until you get near the top, and top it all with four inches of soil. Water, and “plant” into the ground–or store in a dark root cellar.”

Denis Flanagan talked about putting your garden to bed for the winter, and the news is good if you’re a bit lazy. “Basically, don’t do too much,” he advises. Don’t clean up–leave your perennials standing so their seedheads provide food for birds and a place to catch the snow [good advice, too, if you're a novice gardener, as it'll prevent you from inadvertently digging up plants next spring before they show signs of life]. And don’t rake the leaves off your beds, instead, pile more on. Both Dugald and Denis remarked on how handy it was their neighbours put out big bags of leaves for collection by the city–they could go around and help themselves. Water in evergreens well, and use an anti-dessicant spray, such as Wiltproof, on prized broadleafed evergreens–such as euonymus, mahonia and holly–spraying the underside of their leaves only. This is where their pores are, and the spray helps lock in moisture to protect leaves against drying out.

Thanks be

The last few weekends have been spent in good company with dear friends, though I must confess they’ve included rather a lot of festive meals and nice red wine (thank heavens for Lycra). Of course, all this feasting was compounded over Thanksgiving, which here in Toronto was graced by spectacular Indian summer weather and last night, an intensely bright full moon that should have kept me awake, but didn’t.

Yesterday as I waddled around my garden (MUST get back to the gym…soon…), I felt a glow of happiness and well-being and yes, gratitude, which was further enhanced by the warm, sunny day and the beautiful sight of some favourite plants that have just started to don their colourful autumn mantles. Looking good right now are my ‘Lady in Red’ ferns, whose fronds have turned a pale gold that contrasts with their stunning red stems. Some of my barrenwort has also taken on burgundy hues, as has the serviceberry. The neighbours to the north of me planted birches along our property line, and these went buttery yellow almost overnight, to echo the leaves of my climbing hydrangea and certain hostas. The blooms of various paniculata type hydrangeas are a stunning cerise right now, reminding me to harvest some for display indoors, and although the Chinese flowering dogwood hasn’t turned dark red yet, it’s thinking about it, as are the oakleaf hydrangeas. I also have a tender euphorbia known as Caribbean copper plant (Euphorbia cotinifolia ‘Atropurpurea’), whose foliage looks for all the world like purple smokebush (hence its Latin name), growing in a planter. Over the summer, it’s reached an impressive size and the leaves have just turned the most vivid shades imaginable of bronze, orange and red. Wow! Gorgeous, but how will I get it in the house? Speaking of which, with a view to the cooler forecast later in the week, I’ve already brought in the New Zealand flax and will soon bring in the agapanthus. My pots of herbs are still going strong, though, and being a glutton, I’m thankful.

The photo I’ve included this week isn’t from my garden; it’s of an arrangement sent to me a few weeks ago by my friend Erin and created by the floral wizards at Teatro Verde. I keep changing the water and it’s still going strong. The main components are sedum heads, celosia and asters, and if you omit the orchids you could have a bash at recreating it yourself, either from what you have in your garden and planters, or what you can find at the local florist shop or greengrocer. First, pebbles were placed at the bottom of the low bowl, which was then crisscrossed across the top with thin pieces of cellotape to anchor the plants (I checked). Then the arrangement was built up with the flowers mentioned and a few greens.

Finally, I’m off tomorrow morning to the Direct Energy Centre at Exhibition Place, to help designer and landscape architect Shawn Gallaugher start setting up The Green Room, which is Canadian Gardening’s large display area at this weekend’s Style at Home Show, which starts Friday, October 17 and continues through Sunday, October 19. Shawn and I spent last Thursday morning at the Norval farm of Sheridan Nurseries, choosing plant material for the display (the generous folks at Sheridan have lent it to us for the show) and I can promise you it is SPECTACULAR. We have terrific programming scheduled for each day, too, with gardening celebrities including Lorraine Johnson, Gayla Trail, Liz Primeau, Charlie Dobbin and Denis Flanagan, to name just a few, giving talks and doing how-to demos. We’ll also have Master Gardeners on hand to answer all your gardening questions, book signings, and daily Make and Take workshops with Kate Seaver of Kate’s Garden. (To see the full schedule of events, go to styleathomeshow.com and click on schedules). I hope you’ll come down and say hello.

My pet monster: My rosebush

I have a little secret. Well it's not really a secret if you step into my backyard because you'll see that my rosebush is like The Hulk. And because of its thick canes and dagger-sharp thorns, it's obvious that I'm rather petrified of it.

Ok, I admit it. I've been a little neglectful. After getting a couple thorns through my garden gloves the first year I was in my house, I have steered clear and focused on other parts of my gardens.

So my question for Anne Marie was whether I can cut back my rosebush this fall without suffering personal injury and without harming the plant.

Here's what she had to say:

The best time is to prune your monster rose is in the spring. This way there's less opportunity for winter damage. When you do prune it, take out the oldest canes, right down to the soil level. This is assuming that there's a good crop of canes to choose from. Only remove one third of the oldest ones this time. Then one third the year after and set up a regular pruning schedule. Removing the older canes will encourage nice healthy, vigorous new canes to form from the base.

With canes that thick, a heavy duty pair of loppers are needed for the four- to five-centimetre diameter canes and you may need a small pruning saw, too. When you get ready to tackle the rose, suit up with a ton of protective clothing. An old jacket, heavy duty leather gloves (preferably ones that go up to your elbow), safety glasses and long pants.

It's very difficult to use pruners with thick leather gloves so try them out first to see if they will work for you. Once you prune a cane from the middle of the plant, use the loppers to grab it and drag it to you for disposal. If you have a choice, prune out the canes from the centre of the rose to allow more light and air circulation to get to the middle.

So alas, I have to let my giant lie dormant for the winter, but I will be sure to tame the beast come spring.

Photo: The blooms pictured above from this past summer on my Hulk junior. It lives right next door.

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