Gardening Blog

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.

Gourd the turkey

I just couldn’t resist posting this today! I took this photo a couple of weeks ago when I was working on a videoshoot for the website at Sheridan Nurseries. After a little research I discovered this is called a gooseneck gourd–how appropriate! Some clever person has created a stand with the turkey tail and feet that you see here.

I just wanted to take the opportunity to wish my fellow budding gardeners a safe and Happy Thanksgiving! It’s supposed to be a beautiful weekend, so I intend to spend part of it out in my garden, crossing items off my fall checklist.

Check back soon for that video I mentioned earlier. Custom designer Elene Nouri shows us how to create a terrarium, so you can hone your green thumb throughout the winter.

My sand cherry's a sucker

Ok, I lied. My sand cherry has suckers. Let me explain. I have a sand cherry tree in my front garden. It's very lovely–especially in the springtime, but lately, there is new growth coming up in the form of tiny little trees all around the base. These little guys are very hard to pull out–probably because they're attached to the roots of the existing tree. I turned to Anne Marie to find out how to get rid of my baby trees without harming their mama.

The new growths from the base of your sand cherry are suckers and they are still attached to the roots of the tree. Most sand cherries are shallow rooted and are prone to producing suckers since they naturally have a tendency to grow in dense thickets. They will also sucker, especially if the roots have been damaged from digging around the shrub or tree.

If you want your sand cherry to be a single trunk and not have the suckers, they can be dug up, severed from the mother plant if they have plenty of roots and given away to friends. Or, dig down to where they are attached to the root, grab hold of the sucker, twist and pull. Cutting them off at the soil level or below will not stop them from returning. Like rose suckers, the growing bud must be removed totally by twisting and pulling it out.

While I was on the subject of sand cherries, I thought I'd ask Anne Marie a question a reader had.

“Hello, I planted a sand cherry tree this spring and it's not looking good and has lots of chew holes. What should I do?”

According to Anne Marie, the sand cherry is going through a little transplanting stress and is feeling the effects of either a fungus disease called shot hole or an insect attack by any number of pests; from caterpillars like sawflies to Japanese beetles. Take a look at the leaves and if you don't see any pests on them, this is a good sign and they may have moved on. Also you don't see numerous brown spots on the leaves (the beginning of shot hole disease), Anne Marie recommends focusing on keeping the plant healthy and not worry about what caused the chew holes.

Don't fertilize the tree until it gets a little more settled, but do make sure it has enough water and that drainage is good. Also it should be planted at the same depth as it was growing in the pot, with just a small increase (2.5 cm) for mulch over the root area.

The Word on the Street

Last weekend saw me abandoning my garden once again and heading for the West Coast, partly to visit friends and partly to represent Canadian Gardening at Word on the Street, Vancouver. Word on the Street is a free annual event that celebrates reading and promotes literacy in Canada–in fact, it’s North America’s largest literary festival. This year, the celebrations were held on September 28 in Halifax, Kitchener, Toronto and Vancouver.

However, I wasn’t invited to read or even to speak; I’d been asked to demonstrate how to put together a fuss-free container in the Magazines Tent. So not only was I in beautiful Vancouver in perfect, sunny weather, I also had the pleasure of going plant shopping at Art Knapp’s lovely store, which luckily was located just a block away from my hotel. As far as I’m concerned, few things are more fun than buying lovely plants and a nice container with somebody else’s money!

What constitutes a fuss-free container to me? The plantings should require minimal maintenance, look good together and happily co-exist. That means avoiding thugs and wimps in equal measure. I think fuss-free also means something that has a fairly monochromatic colour scheme. Even if you’re no genius with colour combinations, choosing toning shades and pleasing textures and leaf shapes will result in a good-looking design. Think of these as your background pots; foils for the showier prima donnas that might require more cosseting and primping.

When planning your fuss-free container, In terms of shape and structure, it’s helpful to remember the phrase “thrillers, fillers and spillers.” To condense container design into a nutshell, what that means is choose a focal point plant or even some branches (in the case of my Vancouver demo, it was an ornamental millet in lovely shades of copper, burgundy and wheat), then opt for a variety of plants in colours that echo and complement those of your thriller plant–these are the fillers. Finally, the spillers–plants that trail over the edge of your container to soften it and add a lush fulness to the arrangement.

Once your plants are snuggled into the soil, give them a really good long drink of lukewarm water, then top things off with some mulch to help retain moisture. I find moss works well and gives the soil a finished look; sometimes I add a few small stones for more texture.

Consider, too, that perennials and small shrubs are often a great choice for fuss-free containers, and then instead of being tossed into the compost, can be planted into the garden before freeze-up to be enjoyed for years to come. In my garden at home this year, I’m experimenting with a purpleleaf sand cherry in a pot–this ubiquitous, inexpensive plant looks great in a container because it has a graceful form, showy leaves and pretty pink flowers in spring, yet is not too bushy so you’re able to pack in plenty of things around it. My container is quite large, and I’m leaving the sand cherry in it over winter to see if it will survive–it’s a Zone 3 plant and I garden in Zone 6, so with a big of mulch and a sheltered spot, fingers crossed it should do just fine. I also have four evergreens–two cedars and two junipers–on the third-floor deck off my bedroom. These were bought cheap and are planted in ridiculously small, square plastic planters, not double-walled. Believe it or not, they’re going into their fourth winter with no problem. My secret? I water like mad right to freeze-up, and mulch. That’s it, that’s all.

Has your garden had a makeover?

Today we launched an exciting new contest at CanadianGardening.com. If you did a little landscaping magic to your yard this summer or transformed a boring patch of dirt into brilliant blooms, then you can enter your before and after photos to win! And if you focused a little more on the inside, no problem! We'd love to see your renovation pictures, too! First and second prize include a fabulous laundry pair from Maytag.

The entries with the most votes win, so encourage your family, friends and co-workers to vote for your photos.

I look forward to seeing all the inspiring pics from our readers!

When should I divide my perennials?

Yesterday was a gorgeous September day and I found myself out in the garden admiring my perennials–my mums have all of a sudden exploded with colour! Some of my plants, however, have gotten quite dense over the summer. A couple of my hostas are so huge a neighbourhood cat was sleeping under one the other day and I didn't even notice until it crawled out and gave me a sleepy “meow.”

What to do with my crowded beds? I haven't really had to divide anything until now (except my irises), so I wasn't sure when the best time of year is to do it.

I consulted Anne as I think I'd probably better get a move on if I'm going to divide anything before the first frost. Here is her advice:

  • The best time to divide most perennials is in early spring. This will give the plant time to get settled before the summer weather challenges arrive.
  • The second best time to divide most perennials is in early fall, when the soil is still warm and plants can get settled before winter arrives. Divide perennials about 6 weeks before the first frost.
  • Some considerations to think about; often the soil is too wet to dig in the spring when it is the ideal time to divide. Some experts also suggest that spring and summer blooming perennials should be divided in the fall, and fall blooming perennials divided in the spring. This means you are dividing non-blooming plants, which will have a better chance of survival.
  • Exceptions to this rule include bearded iris (August only), columbine (fall only), oriental poppy (early summer after flowering), bleeding heart (early summer after flowering) and peony (late summer).
  • Divide plants on a cloudy day. Water them well the day before the move. And water them well after the move.
  • Cover them if necessary to reduce wilting.
  • Take as much soil as you can lift from around the roots and replant immediately.
  • Use a garden fork or garden spade to loosen the soil and dig out the clump. An old, large kitchen knife, sharp garden spade or two garden forks are handy to divide the clump. Save the most vigorous sections of your clump from the outer edges to replant.

This information will find a place in my gardening journal. I also found this article written by Anne on dividing perennials, which I am going to print, along with the information above, for handy reference.

My first tomatillos = salsa verde

A week or so ago we had a big storm in the night that basically snapped major branches off my poor tomatoes and my tomatillo plant. I went into emergency gathering mode as I picked the tomatillos off the sorry-looking branch that I could not save.

I had quite a few tomatillos that seemed a fairly good size, but they hadn't quite filled out their pod. The good news is that they were bright green, which according to my research is when they're at their best. Anyhow, I had to use them, so I immediately did a search for salsa verde or green salsa so I could use them up right away. One of my favourite dishes at Mexican restaurants is green enchiladas. Until I planted my tomatillo, I was quite ignorant to the fact that the tangy, flavourful salsa smothering my meal was made from tomatillos.

I found a few recipes online, all of them pretty similar. I used this recipe from CanadianLiving.com and instead of the canned variety, I roasted my tomatillos under the broiler for about five minutes per side, let them cool and then squished them up in the blender. I then mixed the remaining ingredients and the result was absolutely delicious on my beef burritos!

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