Gardening Blog

A fresh start

As the old year limped to a close, many looked ahead to 2009 with either trepidation or hope.

The scary global economy is something to give everyone pause, especially if you’ve lost 35 per cent or more of the value of your investments, as so many people have. However, we’ve all taken the hit in one way or another, so I guess it’s a level playing field of sorts.

You see, I definitely belong to the hopeful group; an incorrigible Pollyanna, the original cup-is-half-full kind of gal. And I’m looking forward to this year, which I know for me will be filled with new adventures. On January 22, I’m leaving my job as editor-in-chief of the magazine and striding forth into the great unknown.

But meanwhile, there’s the post-Christmas stuff to face. I need to start thinking about taking down the tree and putting away the colourful ornaments for another year. And after the reds and bright lights of the holidays, this is a time when I crave not more colour, but white. Perhaps it’s a symbol of purity for the as-yet blemish-free new year. I especially love to buy white amaryllises–I’m not quite ready for fragrant spring blooms, but the stately, scentless white blossoms of amaryllis feel just right–almost like trumpets to herald in the new year. There’s a little flower market not far from me that carries them for just $6.99; a real bargain, for just one plant brings pleasure for weeks.

I used to save my amaryllis bulbs and try to get them to reflower, but I had limited success with this (despite my cosseting, too many of them came up blind). So now, most of the time I enjoy them, then toss them into the compost. Happy New Year.

Cheerful, solar-powered holiday lights

I don't usually hang any Christmas lights outside. I save the magic for inside where it's warm and cosy and I don't need to worry about a really long extension cord wrapping around my house and turning anything off and on in the cold.

However I recently got these great NOMA Outdoor Solar-Powered Decorative Landscape Lights to try out from Canadian Tire. They're like those gazing balls that you see in people's gardens, only these ones are holiday red, green, blue and amber. A simple switch on the little solar panel can leave them on autopilot for the season and the sun will do its magic during the day.

The frozen ground proved to be a challenge, but after pouring a bit of boiling water in my garden (in a bulb-less and plant-less area), I easily inserted the little stakes into the ground, stuck the lights on top and that very night had a lovely little glow lining the garden in front of my house. They're like cheerful lollipops in the snow.

These are a great last-minute gift idea for the gardener on your list–or if you get a gift certificate for Christmas and don't know how to spend it!

Festive special

Last week, I wrote about a cheap and cheerful way to fill up containers for winter. In case you had trouble visualizing what these branches look like decorated for the holidays, here’s your answer. We had a fresh snowfall this morning here in Toronto and I went outside to do some shovelling before heading off for work. I took this photo at first light (I’m an early riser).

I spent maybe 15 minutes, tops, festooning the red dogwood branches with an old string of white lights (must replace these with LED lights, which I’ll buy in the post-holiday sales), some unbreakable ornaments and a few garlands of unbreakable red beads. Maybe it’s not the most elegant container in town, but I like it.

If you’re planning to shop for a fresh-cut Christmas tree, you can prolong the life of its needles by spraying the tree with an anti-dessicant spray (several brands are available at nurseries and garden centres) before bringing it indoors. Ditto for your wreaths and swags. What this spray does is help seal the needles to retard evaporation of moisture.

I no longer get a big, fresh-cut tree–partly because the most misshapen, woebegone, Charlie Brown tree on the lot was the one I’d invariably choose to buy. One year, the poor thing was so crooked and bare on one side, I literally had to wedge its stand under the baseboard to keep it from toppling over. It looked as though it was bowing to everyone who came into the room.

These days, my tree is a sculptural affair fashioned from brown twigs. Each year I haul it up from the furnace room, put it on a table and decorate it. But I do buy fresh-cut boughs and put them in a big pitcher for their lovely smell.

We’re due for more snow tomorrow. Maybe it’ll be a rare white Christmas after all.

Eau de Christmas tree

One of my favourite parts about Christmas is finding my tree. Its scent evokes so many warm memories of my childhood, so I look forward to choosing that perfect pine (or fir or spruce) every year. When we were little, we used to go to a cut-your-own farm. This often resulted in my father having to cut off the top–or string it somehow to the ceiling–so it would fit in the house and stand up on its own.

Now that I'm in the city, my trees are a little more modest in size, but I still love walking in the door after a long day at work, breathing in the heady scent and gazing at the lights over a hot cup of tea.

If you still need to grab a tree before the big day, check out Shelagh McNally's guide to choosing the perfect tree.

Cheap and cheerful winter container

Creating a winter container design can be a time-consuming and expensive undertaking. If you go the full monty with both broadleafed and evergreen boughs, magnolia leaves, eucalyptus, cones and assorted bits, bobs, bows and berries, you can very easily drop three figures on just a couple of pots. And if you have lots of pots, you might as well take out a mortgage.

So recently, after years of trying to outdo myself with increasingly elaborate container displays, I came up with an idea that’s simple, inexpensive and quick.

I now buy plenty of the prettiest, most colourful branches I can find (such as red, orange or yellowtwig dogwood, or perhaps really fresh, yellow-green curly willow). Then I push loads of these–but just one type per pot–into the soil of each container until a full and pleasing shape is created (do not skimp on the branches; cram them in). Next, for a more finished look, I top the soil with moss (a greengrocer near me sells huge boxes of the stuff for $15–plenty to do all my containers). If moss is unavailable, you could substitute leaves, straw, tiny pine cones or whatever mulch-like material comes to hand. The whole lot is then anchored with river stones, which I buy at Ikea for about $2 for a generously sized mesh bag (I figure on one bag per large pot).

And that’s it. Estimated cost per container? Well under $20 (and if you have shrub trimmings you can use, almost nothing).

During the holidays, I dress up the branches with a string of plain white lights and colour-coordinated ornaments. This year, to go with my red dogwood, I bought a large box of red ornaments from Ikea for around $5. They look like glass but are some sort of unbreakable stuff. These will be hung with good old gardener’s twine, which is both sturdy and attractive.

I’ve had a lot of compliments on these pots which, I’ve been told, look really festive and pretty. Best of all, after the holidays, removing the lights and ornaments is a snap. The pots keep their clean good looks all winter long and don’t look too Christmassy after the fact, either.

(Tip: if you haven’t put together your winter container yet and the soil in your pot has frozen, don’t do what my neighbour did and try to soften it up with a hair dryer. Best to lug it inside overnight, where it will defrost and be easy to work with the next day. Put it on a mat or some newspapers so it doesn’t make a mess.)

A perfect gardening gift for me–and gift ideas for gardeners

My web producer, Jen Murray, just posted this great article she wrote on gifts to give to the gardener on your list. From the necessary (like secateurs) to pampering presents to the whimsical, you’re sure to find something for the green thumb on your list.

Jen couldn’t have found a more perfect present for me. As per Anne Marie’s recommendation, I asked for a protective glove to deal with my roses in the spring. And Jen found me this pair from West Country Gloves and get this… they’re pink! My fave colour.

Mom, if you’re reading this…

Repotting my amaryllis

I'm going to re-pot my amaryllis bulb (which has been in a dark room in a basement since last winter). I took a look at an article from the archive, and then asked Anne Marie if she has any recommendations for repotting. Here is what she had to say:

  • Repotting is fine in the late fall. The bulbs should have been dormant long enough by now so that the flower buds have formed.
  • Use a good sterilized houseplant soil and just move the bulb into a pot that is slightly larger. Amaryllis like to be in a small pot for their size (and often are top heavy because of this).
  • Clean off the old soil from the bulb roots and replant it so that ½ to ¼ of the bulb is showing above the soil. Firm the soil and water well.
  • Once a flower bud or leaves start to show, give it a diluted half-strength fertilizer application every week.
  • For reblooming bulbs, many times the leaves will grow first instead of the flower stalk. Move the bulb to a warm, bright location and enjoy.

Last year my sister’s amaryllis had three huge blooms while my bulb grew a sorry-looking little shoot. My hope is that mine measures up this year.

Window dressing

My kitchen has a little breakfast room with a skylight and a big sliding door overlooking the garden. Apart from that there’s just one window, with a panoramic view of my neighbour’s brick wall and into their kitchen window.

Rather than create privacy with curtains or shutters, I fill the deep sill with a motley assortment of plants. This has the same effect and gives both of us something nice and green to look at year-round.

My kitchen window faces north, so the light isn’t terrific for sun-lovers, but less fussy plants survive just fine. So what grows there at the moment? In the black, wrought-iron pedestal pot is a ‘River Nile’ begonia–a showy beauty whose leaves have maroon-coloured edges. Next to it on the right is a slipper orchid that has quadrupuled in size and has bloomed twice for me–it really needs to be transplanted, but I’m not that confident with orchids so I’ve been putting it off. And to the right of that is a crown of thorns (Euphorbia milii), which has grown quite tall and rangy because it would really, really appreciate more light, thank you. Even so, it does manage to push out a few red blooms from time to time, so good for it.

At the back left is a coffee plant that was sent to me some 18 months ago. This hasn’t grown too much, but at least it hasn’t died. (Still, I don’t think I’ll be grinding homegrown beans anytime soon.) Next to it and partially hidden from view is a floppy aloe vera, always a must in my kitchen because I often singe my arm or burn a finger as I’m pulling stuff out of the oven. I simply break off a bit of the plant and rub its sap on the ow-ow, which immediately soothes it.

Alongside these and thankfully hidden from view is a truly scraggly looking bit of lucky bamboo rooting in water. This was also sent to me and though I really should, I’m just too darned superstitious to put it in the compost. Last but not least, in the front left is a sulky African violet I’m nursing along. My house really doesn’t have great light for African violets, but I’m ever hopeful and keep buying them anyway.

What’s growing on your windowsill?

Help for my money tree

I have a money tree and lately I've noticed on the underside of the leaves these little tiny dots that look like water droplets and the odd little web around the leaves. Now some of the leaves are turning brown. I asked Anne Marie, if there is a way to make it healthy again. Here's what she had to say:

The money tree (or good luck plant) is botanically called Pachira glabra and is often grown in a small container with up to eight thick braided trunks. The leaves are palmate (hand-shaped). It is a tropical tree from central and South America. Even though they are native to a humid, moist tropical location, in our homes they should be kept somewhat dry and have good drainage. Make sure the plant is dry between watering–water it thoroughly then let it dry out again. The thickened stem does hold some reserves of water for dry spells. The money tree seems to grow best in containers that are undersized for their height, too. Misting the leaves will help during the winter months. Place the plant in a bright window that doesn't get direct sunlight.

The tiny dots under the leaves could be the plant's emergency moisture-release system kicking in. Called “guttation” in botanical language, these drops of sap are the result of the roots continuing to take up water, which accumulates in the plant and can't transpire enough (particularly at night). The plant releases this under pressure water through special structures in the leaf, where they form drops. High soil moisture levels at night encourage guttation. Reduce the soil moisture and this will stop. High soil moisture might be the cause of the browning leaves, too.

The odd fine webbing could be from a spider, but watch to see if the webs become numerous and small black dots appear on the underside of the leaf–if so, spider mites might be the culprit.

I'll see what I can do with Anne Marie's advice and report back. What I want to know is if I kill my money tree am I destined for a life of debt?

The first snowfall

The first snowfall caught some Torontonians by surprise. The garden next door is still littered with colourful plastic toys, now dusted with snow, while a forlorn-looking garden umbrella sits at half-mast in its holder.

“Geez, I didn’t think it would snow so soon,” my neighbour ruefully admitted, as the two of us shovelled our respective walks this morning. The weather is supposed to be warming up next week, so likely she’ll still have time to gather up everything before serious winter bites.

I took this photograph from my back deck, which gives you some idea of what I look at from my breakfast room. Not bad, eh? When I was a young gardener, I grew loads of flowers and little else. As a consequence, in winter my backyard looked flat, bald and blah. A depressing sight for a housebound young mother with two babies, which I was back then.

But the longer you garden, the more you learn.

Now, there’s plenty to gaze at year-round. There are loads of shrubs and small trees for visiting birds to perch on, and quite a few evergreens of various kinds, which tend to take a back seat in summer but come to the fore when the snow flies.

I really like broadleafed evergreens, too, and in this climate (Zone 6) they look good throughout winter. Sarcoxie euonymus (the plain green kind–my favourite) cloaks my fences. This plant takes a while to get established, but once it starts climbing it’s great. (In summer, vines such as clematis clamber through it.) And the neighbour whose house is joined to mine has a massive Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.) that sits on our property line and lends its imposing leafy presence all year.

Some of my deciduous plants keep their foliage for a long time, too, such as the columnar beech halfway down the garden and my bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica), which has taken on an impressive size.

There’s lots to love about the winter landscape.

The white stuff aside (the first snowfall of winter is always a joy), it’s been a rather unsettling week. Last Friday, I found out our major competitor, Gardening Life, is folding. Contrary to what you might think, I am saddened by this, and especially for Marjorie Harris, whose baby the magazine has been since Day One. Ironically, Marjorie and Liz Primeau, our magazine’s founding editor, are coming to my house for lunch on Monday. We try to do this once a year, and the date was decided long before this bad news broke. This time, there’ll be champagne for sure. I think we’ll drink to resilience.

Incidentally, Liz has just written her memoir. It’s called My Natural History: The Evolution of a Gardener and is published by Greystone Books. I’ve reviewed it in our winter issue, and it’s a cracking good read. And some of you may not know that as well as being a journalist and author, Marjorie is also a garden consultant. I reckon she’d be a fun person to have advise you on your patch. If you’d like to know more about the services she offers, you can check out www.marjorieharris.com/Flyer/index.php.

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