Gardening Blog

Eco-friendly resolutions

Happy New Year!

Besides giving my thirsty indoor plants lots to drink in this cold, dry weather, I haven't done much thinking personally about my own garden — that will change in the coming weeks as I'm really excited for spring.
However I have been busy editing and uploading content to go with the new special issue that is being mailed to subscribers probably as I write this! The theme is “Fantastic eco-wise Gardens.” With municipalities banning the use of pesticides and enviro-minded garden gurus reminding gardeners everywhere about the benefits of “green” gardening, this will be a fantastic resource to get you in the eco-friendly spirit for spring.
We also have lots of great eco-friendly content online…
For the new year, Jennifer Murray, my fabulous web producer, put together a helpful list of realistic eco-gardening resolutions.
If you're looking to add some earth-friendly titles to your gardening library this year, consulting editor Lorraine Flanigan has compiled an extensive list of resources.
Plus, you can determine how green you are with Stephen Westcott-Gratton's “Determining your green thumbprint” quiz. It might inspire you to adopt at least one of the eco-gardening resolutions — even small steps can make a great difference.
My eco resolutions include:

  1. Setting up my composter to actually produce compost! Currently it is just full of grass clippings. All the good stuff goes out in my green bin each week.
  2. Trying to find an effective, “green” way to get rid of the army of ants who call my property home.
  3. Plant a couple of trees in my yard. This will be win win as my neighbours behind me plan to build a second story on their bungalow – I’ll need privacy! Plus it will be good for the environment.

What are your eco-gardening resolutions?

How to become a citizen-scientist

Winter is tough on gardeners, who itch to be outside, getting their hands into the soil. It’s still a bit early to start seeds, and houseplants and catalogues can only take you so far. Sigh.

But it’s a grand time to learn more about your passion, if you’re so inclined. When it’s cold and snowy, you can sit through a day of lectures with equanimity.

Last weekend, for example, I attended the Toronto Master Gardeners technical update, which was a day-long symposium dedicated to The Global Gardener: Gardening in a Changing Climate held at Toronto Botanical Garden. I trotted along to several seminars (on bio-intensive gardening and backyard greenhouses), hobnobbed with more than 200 fellow gardeners from around Ontario, ate a delicious lunch, then listened to a fact-filled and thought-provoking keynote address given by Natalie Iwanycki and Alex Henderson of Royal Botanical Gardens.

One of the things Natalie and Alex touched on was Plant Watch, a volunteer monitoring program designed to help identify changes that might be affecting our environment. The way it works is gardeners across the country help record flowering times for selected plant species in their area, in effect becoming citizen-scientists. The program is a joint venture between the Canadian Nature Federation and Environment Canada’s Ecological Monitoring and Assessment Network Coordinating Office (EMANCO). Check it out at www.plantwatch.ca–you can get your kids involved as well.

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?

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