Gardening Blog

A seed gathering I will go

Last weekend I signed up for a two-hour seminar on collecting and storing seeds at the Evergreen Brickworks Farmer's Market. Our teacher was Maria Kasstan, who was there on behalf of Seeds of Diversity Canada, “a charitable organization working to save Canada's endangered horticultural and agricultural heritage.”

What piqued my interest when I saw the class advertised on the website was the idea that I can harvest seeds from my flowers and share them with friends. I've had neighbours walk by commenting on my garden–and some have even had the nerve to ask if they can pick off a dried bud from this or that plant, which I've happily agreed to. But I never really understood how to go about preserving them until next year.

Maria was a fountain of knowledge as she explained the important process of pollination and some of the plants that can lure bees into the yard. She then went on to describe the importance of preserving heritage seeds–and how to do it. That was another reason I had attended–even though my crop of tomatoes just wasn't meant to be this year, I was hoping I could save some seeds for next year.

I learned what I need to do is take a very ripe tomato and let it rot for three to four days. This helps to eliminate that gel that's around a tomato seed–a germination inhibitor. After that, you can pick out the seeds (I think I'll leave that job for my boyfriend), dry them and store them in the refrigerator or freezer until spring. Be sure to use a jar or paper to store, never plastic!

Armed with our new knowledge–and some little envelopes, our morning ended out in the wildflower garden gathering wildflower seeds to entice pollinators to our yards next spring.

Click here for more tips on storing and preserving your seeds.

Will my herbs survive the winter?

For my last post, I found out that my herbs are basically done for the season. But I wanted to know what I can do with them over the winter. The mint is in a big pot, but the other two are in the ground.

Sadly, my cilantro and basil will not overwinter, so I am going to try to collect the seeds in case I want to try starting them myself next spring.

However, Anne Marie says the mint is hardy and can be planted in the garden. Since it is very invasive, I must keep it in the pot and just lower the whole thing into the ground. Keeping it in the pot will keep it contained for a while so it won't spread everywhere too fast.

Or, I can bring the pot into a garage or shed for the winter or tuck it up against the house and pack leaves around it.

Stan’s Jade Plant

Some 20 years ago, my friend Penny’s mother, Jean, gave me her late husband’s jade plant for safe keeping. She was moving from her bright apartment into another with less natural light, and had no room for it. I’m not sure how long Stanley had been growing it, but it was quite a size when it came to me and it’s gotten bigger ever since.

Anyone who has grown a jade knows their branches are very fragile and break off with the slightest nudge. So this one has never been repotted, and lives in a surprisingly small plastic container with little soil (jades like to be potbound). This pot rests in a large terracotta one to give the plant stability. I water it when I remember and feed it very seldom.

The plant has become a behemoth–its wingspan is about four feet, and its height a good three. I used to be better about pinching it back and moving the pot around so it grew evenly, but I’ve become less attentive so its a bit misshapen. It’s too heavy and cumbersome to move outdoors anymore, so it lives, summer and winter, on my sun porch, where it gets plenty of light and copes with extremes of heat and cold. It’s never flowered–my porch faces west, and maybe the sun just isn’t intense enough through those windows.

The other day, Penny was over for a visit.

“Hey, is that my dad’s old jade plant?” she asked.

“Yes, it is,” I replied, thinking she might ask to keep it.

“Kinda ugly, isn’t it?” she remarked.

Uh huh. And I guess it’s mine until further notice.

What happened to my poor herbs?

This past spring, I planted three herbsbasil, cilantro and mint–imagining the fresh flavours in my meals all season long. However, in the last few weeks, they've all grown flowers on top. My poor cilantro completely fell over from the weight and my basil just doesn't seem as bushy or yummy-looking. Sigh. My herb-infused culinary creations will have to wait until I figure out if they're still edible. Furthermore, can I cut back the flowers without damaging the plants?

Here's what Anne Marie had to say about the fate of the most fragrant end of my garden.

Some herbs are still quite useable even after they start to flower but others get too strong or woodier once this takes place. For most, frequent harvesting make the plants bushier and produce more harvestable stems.

Mint is usable before and after it flowers. In fact, mint can be collected and dried as the flowers begin to open. Young, tender stems before flowering are better than the older, woodier, bitter stems. Use the leaves dried or fresh.

Basil should be used when young before it goes to flower. You can stall the flowering by pinching out the flower buds whenever you see them. This will help create a bushier plant and promote more side growth. Basil stops producing nice leafy growth when it flowers. It is best to use fresh basil or cut it for drying up until just before the flowers open.

Cilantro should be harvested before the plant goes into flower. I don't know of any way to delay this from happening. It usually starts flowering once the weather gets hot. Or let it flower and harvest the seeds as coriander in late summer.

Ok, better luck next year with my basil and maybe I'll whip outside tomorrow and see about collecting my own coriander. That sounds promising.

But will my edible plants make it through the winter? Stay tuned!

I “heart” my rain barrel

For a great deal of the summer, I haven't had to worry about watering. In fact, my yard was becoming downright soggy. I think I spied moss behind the barbecue!

However, these past couple of weeks, the soil has become as dry as a desert and by the end of a hot day, things generally look a little wilty. Luckily my trusty rain barrel is almost to the brim from the deluge of rain we've received here in Southern Ontario all season.

Take a look at the guest entry I wrote for CanadianLiving.com's Green Living blog extolling the virtues of my water-bearing rain barrel.

And for those of you who are also going through a wee dry spell, here are some articles with helpful watering advice.

• The best ways to water
• Water update
• Watering wisdom

Journey’s end

Relaxing on the train back to Edmonton, I think back over our journey (and am comfortable now with the train’s rhythm, which, due to the reality of being shunted aside by freight trains from time to time, seems less schedule-driven than destination-based). No matter. I’ve been sitting in the catbird’s seat, leisurely gazing at the beauty that is Canada–by turns rugged, gentle-looking, majestic and surprising, and always, always inspiring; it makes my heart swell with pride.

I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to sample part of the Via Rail Garden Route. It’s been so much fun I decide one day I’ll make the time to travel from Halifax to Vancouver by train–from sea to shining sea–stopping off at various locations to see the gardens, get a sense of the cities/towns, meet the people. I reckon that doing it this way and at a leisurely pace would likely take about a month, but that’s okay–what a fabulous experience. In fact, it’s one I would heartily recommend to any Canadian to add to their “100 things I have to do before I die” list; our own Canuck version of the Grand Tour, by train. One thing for sure: getting there (wherever “there” is) would certainly be half the fun.

The hills are alive: Day two

Another beautiful day in paradise. For breakfast, Carol, Shannon and I yum up some delicious spicy sausage rolls from the local bakery, washed down with lattes, then set off to visit four private gardens. They’re very different from one another–one is stuffed full of colourful annuals, another focuses on native plants, a third has charming vignettes and pretty corners galore and the final one is very shady–offering ample proof (as if I needed it) that you can create really lovely spaces even in a place with a really short growing season. Afterwards, we head for the famed Jasper Park Lodge to have a look around its stunning grounds. Talk about picture-postcard perfect.

Many of the lakes up here are jade green or bright, swimming-pool-turquoise in colour. I’m told this is caused by stirred-up sediment in the glacial runoff, which also gives me a clue as to the water’s temperature. Brrr. As someone who doesn’t venture into the water unless I can put my toe in without flinching, you won’t catch me going for a dip anytime soon. Come to think of it, I don’t see anyone else swimming, either.

At lunch, I devour a massive Cobb salad. Where is this appetite coming from? Thank heavens I don’t eat like this at home, for never mind gardener at large–I’d soon be known as the large gardener.

That afternoon, Shannon drives us to an area just beyond town known as the bench, where there are wonderful lookout points and numerous small lakes; even a path that takes us to a little island in the middle of one. Our feet are silent on a soft carpet of pine needles, and the sun-warmed conifers release their resin scent into the air. There are a few other people there, but nobody speaks. Too gobsmacked by beauty, I reckon.

(By the way, Shannon passed along the names of some of the plants that have proven to be elk-proof in her municipal displays. These include snapdragons, marigolds, alyssum, verbenas, salpiglossis [a.k.a. painted tongue], ‘Victoria Blue’ salvia farinacea, bidens, dusty miller, zinnias, gazanias and so far–those gorgeous godetias. Not a bad list for carefree colour.)

Later on, we return to our base and rest up to be ready for that evening’s excitement, courtesy of Jasper Adventure Centre. It’s a wildlife adventure tour, followed by a visit to Miette Hot Springs where we will take the waters–all told, a four-hour excursion by minivan. We see a female elk browsing by the side of the road, a bald eagle high up in a tree, and a little black bear. We don’t see a grizzly, which is another possibility, but that’s fine by me. Nothing scary or dangerous, thank you very much.

At the hot springs, which are sulfurous and smell a bit like rotten eggs, the water temperature is 104 degrees–now THAT’S more my kind of pool. Carol and I gratefully sink into its warmth and have a good, long wallow. It’s a perfect ending to our visit, for tomorrow we head back to Edmonton on the train to catch our red-eye flight home.

What's on my tomatillo?

I planted a few different peppers this past spring, but this little orange and black critter seemed only to have eyes (or fangs) for my tomatillo plant. I tried the soap and water method and I even picked some off and squished them myself, but the next day there was always one of their friends munching away at the leaves.

According to Anne Marie Van Nest, the insect looks like an adult three-lined potato beetle that migrated to my tomatillo to feed. “They probably didn't find their first love–potatoes–nearby and decided to try your tomatillos, she explains. They are in the same Solanaceae (potato/tomato/nightshade) family.

So how do I ultimately get rid of them?

Van Nest recommends looking for neat yellow/orange rows of eggs on the underside of the leaf and removing them to help control this pest. The even more voracious larvae cluster on the leaves munching everything in sight and are a disgusting soft-bodied eating machine.

The best way to control them is to remove the eggs, handpick the larvae and adult beetles and dump them into a bucket of soapy water. Spraying with soapy water is somewhat effective on the ones that actually get sprayed, but it doesn't work on those that arrive later.

Will I have tomatoes before the snow?

tomatoes

Inspired by Barbara Kingsolver's ambitious planting of 14 varieties of heirloom tomatoes in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I set off for my local farmer's market this spring to seek out my own little fruit bearers. A couple of months later and my plants are tall and thick enough to form a nice privacy hedge. However three were very slow to bloom and the fourth stands tall and proud, but with no yellow petals in sight.

Anne Marie Van Nest, Canadian Gardening`s horticultural editor, has reassured me that there is still hope. Here's what could be wrong:

1: Fertilizer issues
If a little too much nitrogen is suspect from a rich soil high in aged manures or from the addition of a high-nitrogen fertilizer, then change fertilizers to one that has a higher middle number. Reducing the nitrogen (first number) and increasing the phosphorous and potassium (second and third numbers) will encourage more fruit and root growth and cut back on the foliage growth.

2: Late bloomers
Tomatoes (depending on the type) can take from 45 (Sub Arctic Plenty) to 85 days (Evergreen) to produce fruit and ripen from the time they were transplanted into the garden. Check the seed package or plant label for this date to harvest number. There are still plenty of weeks for today's flowers to form nice fruit.

3: The weather
Another aspect to consider is the excessive rain in Southern Ontario this summer that has drastically cut down on the amount of sunshine that the tomatoes have received to produce fruit.

I'm going to place my bets on late bloomers and the soggy weather and find the patience to wait for my beefsteaks and Brandywines.

And if I end up with some green tomatoes, Anne Marie suggests picking them before they get frosted so I can use them for pickles, chutney or relish. Or, I can wrap them in newspaper and store them above freezing in single layers on a shallow tray to finish ripening. They will slowly ripen over the subsequent weeks or months. Some people have even enjoyed ripe tomatoes in December that were picked green in October. Now that is great news!

Disclaimer: Sadly, the photo shown above does not in any way accurately depict the current state of my tomatoes. My fingers are crossed I will at least get a few juicy tomatoes before the first frost. Stay tuned!

Welcome to The Budding Gardener!

Three years ago I bought a cute little bungalow (I like to refer to it as a cottage) with a pretty decent front and backyard–my own little paradise in the city. Since we moved in winter, my first summer was a game of waiting to see what sprouted up–and then trying to figure out if it was plant or weed. What a learning experience it has been–and sometimes an overwhelming one–as I often look around my yard trying to figure out what area needs my TLC first! I've discovered that puttering around in my garden is so calming and a nice retreat from my busy life–when my busy life (and the weather) don't interrupt my plans to garden! Though I wistfully aspire to perfection, I am comfortable with the fact that my gardens are a work in progress–they inspire me to learn more about gardening techniques and plants–and how not to kill them.

This blog will allow me to share my gardening adventures–trial and error, successes and disappointments. And because I am still a newbie, I have enlisted Canadian Gardening's horticultural editor, Anne Marie Van Nest to help me out with my gardening dilemmas from time to time. I hope to inspire other budding gardeners to grab a pair of gloves and start playing in the dirt!

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