Gardening Blog

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.

Using my holly for holiday decorating

As the holidays are approaching, I thought I'd use some of the branches on my holly berry bush in some festive displays. I asked Anne Marie if it would harm the plant if I snip off a few branches here and there. “No, go right ahead and enjoy the holly for the holidays,” she says. “Keep it cool and away from direct sun while indoors. The berries and leaves will eventually dry out and fall. To prolong their beauty, keep the branches in the refrigerator and bring them out for special gatherings.”

The last of my tasks

The weather has just not cooperated this fall. Granted my schedule can be a bit hectic, so I can't just expect Mother Nature to conform to MY timetable, but seriously, does it have to rain every time I have a free moment? It poured this past weekend, so I didn't get the opportunity to do any raking, but I managed to sneak out today for an hour before work and get some of those leaves up in my backyard before the snow flies.

The one thing I've neglected to do is trim back some of the lily and iris foliage around my yard.

I asked Anne Marie if I can cut it back before winter and here is what she had to say:

  • If your iris and lily foliage is ready to be removed (i.e easily pulled out) go right ahead.
  • Lilies: After the foliage has naturally died down, remove all but 4 cm of the stem so you know where the plant is next spring.
  • Bearded iris: Do not mulch, cut foliage down to 15 cm.

And alas, as I'm about to post this, it's starting to snow.

The #1 fall task gardeners should do

As the weather has not been particularly cooperative on the days I'm available to clean up my yard, I asked Anne Marie what the one thing is that all gardeners should do. Last year it snowed before we go all our leaves up!

Here is what she recommended:

  • Water your evergreens well
  • Prune your hybrid tea roses to knee height and mound with soil for protection
  • Tie cedars and junipers that might be damaged by ice and heavy snow loads

Ok, that's three things, but all very helpful if they apply to your yard. Oh and she recommended that I empty my rain barrel because the water will expand when frozen and could damage it. That's one thing I have managed to do.

So my mint is nestled against the house, all my pots and garden knick knackey things have been put away along with the patio furniture and the barbecue, the birdfeeder is out…

And this past weekend it rained–again–meaning my backyard is still an ocean of leaves. If I can just get home before dark one night I'll grab my rake!

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.

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