Sunday, February 19, 2017

Getting closer but not there yet

Imagine, lying in bed nice and cozy then suddenly the duvet is whipped off. That’s bad enough, but then the window is thrown wide open and an icy blast flash freezes your tender bits. If this is repeated enough times, those bits will fall off. This is exactly what happens to plants in the garden when the snow melts quickly, as it has this week.

Snow is an insulator, the deeper the better. It keeps plants in a comfortable state of dormancy. Even in winter, soil is giving off heat. Deep down, soil temperature is around 10 degrees or so, summer and winter. Where there’s a deep layer of snow acting as insulation, the surface temperature of the soil may be barely frozen. A study from the University of Delaware showed that for each centimetre of snow cover, the soil temperature will increase by roughly half a degree Celsius. 

Being suddenly exposed to icy blasts won’t bother tough plants, especially native ones, but any tender ones will suffer. And if the icy blasts don’t get them, the soggy soil will. The ground below may remain frozen, but nearer the surface it will be waterlogged. This happens in spring, but the ground soon thaws and normal drainage is resumed. When it happens in the middle of winter, that soggy ground refreezes. Repeat a few times and the expensive, borderline hardy perennial that you planted with care last spring will quietly succumb and no amount of coaxing will revive it. The same conditions can easily cause plants that aren’t well rooted to be heaved out of the ground, dead or alive.

I haven’t reached the point where I’m pushing wheelbarrows full of snow to the backyard to cover tender plants, but I have on occasion tossed a few extra shovelfuls over one or two. I usually mulch around the special ones in fall to help them resist the effect of winter thaws.

There are places in my backyard where the snow drifts deeper, and consequently, plants below are less prone to being prematurely exposed. The same occurs in sheltered areas, usually in shade and out of the wind. It’s worthwhile to note these places as they are in effect, micro-climates. A tender plant may require other specific considerations — soil type, sun or shade etc. — but it might just stand a better chance by being planted where it won’t be subjected to harsh conditions too early in the spring.

It’s also worth noting where the opposite occurs — areas in the garden where wind consistently whips snow away to expose the soil. This happens around the base of shrubs, posts, and against a fence, or building.

The snow is often scoured away along sides of buildings, depending on the prevailing wind, although the soil may be warmed by heat loss from the house, counteracting the effect of the wind. In fact, tender plants often survive well here. For instance, spring bulbs planted close to a sheltered, south facing wall will flower days or even weeks earlier than those in the middle of a garden.  Against a fence there’s no extra heat in the soil and though the fence may cause snow to drift deeply as you may see on a leeward flowerbed, the space closest to the fence is left exposed.

It may not be immediately obvious that a change in the weather is impacting the way a garden will look in summer, but it certainly does. Ahh, summer. Brrr — hang on to that the duvet. Winter isn’t over yet.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Groundhog Alternative Predictions

If youve ever had a groundhog eat a swath across the lettuce patch in your veggie garden, you probably wont be appreciating all the attention that will be given to Phil and Willy on Groundhog day. Regardless of what they predict about spring which any gardener will tell you doesnt arrive until at least a month after the first garden tent goes up at a shopping plaza —  I dont think well be out in the garden anytime soon.
No, gardeners are not groundhog groupies. As far as were concerned, a groundhog (Marmota monax) is nothing more than an overweight vegetarian rat with a bushy tail that will clean out a garden faster than a wheat combine. Theyll eat tender green plants, alfalfa, clover, roots, bulbs, tubers, and even seeds as they gorge their way through summer and fall in preparation for their long winter sleep.

I still havent forgotten the pair of young groundhogs that showed up in my backyard one June. They piled on the pounds so fast that within a day they couldnt squeeze out through the hole in the fence theyd arrived through (not that theyd any intention of doing so).

Since the last thing I wanted was word getting about that my garden was a summer resort for groundhogs, I tried to be less than hospitable by forcing them to participate in a daily exercise program. Every evening I chased them around the yard, hoping theyd climb the fence (as they are well able to), but it soon became a game of catch as catch can and I was losing.

Even though groundhogs cant match the speed and evasive tactics of a rabbit, they can run at a loping gallop of about ten miles an hour. That doesnt sound very fast, but when I had to leap shrubs at a single bound while they were darting below, there was no way I could keep up, and besides, Im not sure what I would have done if I had caught up with them.

I finally gave up and borrowed a live trap. I baited it with lettuce because it was obvious they were hooked on the stuff, and as there was no longer a single leaf left in the garden to satisfy their addiction, they couldnt resist the crisp head of iceberg I bought for them and they were collared.

A quick trip to a groundhog sanctuary and that was that. Im sure that wherever they are at this moment, unlike Phil and Willy, theyre fast asleep, no doubt dreaming of my lettuce patch.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Poinsettia Panic

One hundred and seventy three already. That’s how many poinsettias I’ve encountered so far this Christmas season. I have my rules — these have to be live poinsettias and not in a store or greenhouse, unless the store is displaying the plant as part of a seasonal display.

This all started because of my aversion to poinsettias; it was getting worse each year. Don’t believe me? — read previous columns where I’ve complained about the boring ubiquity of these plants, the sheer numbers, the environmental impact of all that wasted potting soil, the energy required to grow and transport them, and don’t even mention the plastic pots that end up at the dump. Grocery stores charging five cents for a plastic bag? I think they missed a huge opportunity here. I say supply your own pot.

Trouble was, I was beginning to be perceived as a Christmas Scrooge, a real grouch bent on spoiling the pleasure of others. I tried not to, but whereas I used to only frown and grumble, I was beginning to openly sneer at these — ahem — plants. Oops, there I go again. I’m sorry. I am trying. Hey, at least I call it the Christmas season and not “holiday” season.

Anyway, the answer was counselling sessions, where I came to realize that unless I was to become completely ostracized by society I would have to learn to like poinsettias. Clearly they’re not going to go away. It was suggested I turn it into a game or challenge and it’s helped considerably. I can now smile when I see a poinsettia, knowing that I’m further along on my quest to set a personal record.

It’s such fun, and it makes Christmas shopping much more pleasurable. I now enter stores full of hope that there’ll be a poinsettia on display — there always is. Naturally, my face lights up immediately, which has the effect of cheering up the frazzled sales assistant, thereby resulting in especially good service.

When I attend a Christmas function, I no longer get annoyed when a whacking great green and red object has been plonked in the middle of the table, completely obscuring my dinner partner, causing us to bob and weave like a couple of boxers as we try to have a conversation. Now I can hardly contain my enthusiasm. I even leave my table and explore the room, anxious to ensure I count them all.

I appear to be the most gregarious, happy person present as I visit other tables, smiling and chatting, saying things like lovely, great, or terrific, even though under my breath, I’m counting away. My obvious enthusiasm then gets me into numerous conversations about how to care for poinsettias.

Here’s what I say: First remove the foil from around the pot or poke holes in the bottom otherwise excess water will rot the roots. Locate in a sunny window, but not against the glass. Maintain at a daytime temperature of 18 to 21C and if possible, move to a cooler place at night, but no cooler than 15C to avoid root rot. Avoid exposure to hot or cold drafts as these can cause premature leaf drop. Water well when the surface is dry to the touch. Finally, poinsettia is not poisonous, but I wouldn’t eat it. 175, 176,177 . . .

Friday, July 29, 2016

July Report Card

Except for the extreme heat and lack of rain (heard a fire hydrant whistling for a dog the other day) the old garden isn’t looking too bad.

The Eustoma are amazing, and the Echinacea are providing sterling service. The Lantana, too, has been flowering relentlessly, as has the waterlily 

The portulaca are putting in a lot of effort but the begonias could try harder. I must also congratulate the white cosmos, a new addition that is showing a lot of enthusiasm.

Naturally, I publicly congratulated them all; a bit of positive feedback encourages the performers and, I hope, embarrasses the duds (YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE!).

I’ve certainly done my bit — tender loving care administered without a hint of favoritism.

I wish it would rain. My old oak rain barrel is beginning to look like a picket fence.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

It's Dirty Work

It’s all hard, dirty work, battling insects, diagnosing diseases, dealing with erratic weather, and chasing critters. That’s what gardening must seem like to those without a hint of digital green, so I suppose it’s no surprise when someone tells me they just don’t get it. Like many who feel that way, they like a garden to look nice, in a vague sort of way — mainly tidy, I guess, but that’s as far as it goes.

So what is the attraction? I have a hard time explaining. I try the whole being connected with nature thing, hands in the soil feeling the energy of the earth beneath, yet the thought of dirty hands elicits only a frown.

But what about a beautifully landscaped garden that incorporates all the features that are designed to appeal to one’s sense of aesthetics — the winding pathways, subtly balanced colours, sculpted trees and shrubs mirrored in still pools? Makes it hard to hang out washing, they say, not that many still do.

Consider the fragrances that waft across the patio on a warm summer evening, I might say; people spend a fortune on being fragrant. Aren’t heavenly scents produced in a garden equally attractive? No, I suppose a spray can is more reliable, I have to agree, even if it is filled with questionable chemicals, and yes, for some, a steak sizzling on the barbeque trumps lavender any day.

Then what about the salad that goes with the steak; surely there’s nothing finer than a freshly picked tomato? Red and round, they’re all the same, says the one with dead taste buds.

See what I’m up against? But for those who have discovered gardening and the joy it brings, despite the dirty hands and all the challenges a gardener must face, you know it’s all worthwhile. I know I do, for all the reasons above, and more. I enjoy all aspects, but one in particular always inspires me and that’s the art. Not the art of design, at least not the gardener’s, but that of plants and flowers.

To stop and smell the roses is as relevant as ever, but when I remember to slow down and actually look at things closely, intensely, there’s a whole world of artistry that isn’t immediately apparent, especially if the bifocals are sitting in the house. 

This is when I recall my favourite garden quote by Sally Carrighar, one I should inscribe on the fence as a reminder: “The important thing is to know this flower, look at its colour until its blueness becomes as real as a keynote of music”. To this I’d add a reminder to observe artful intricacy of design.

There are many reasons for the variety of colours and forms taken by flowers and foliage, though I doubt any were originally designed to look appealing to a human perspective — insects mainly — yet we are the beneficiaries of these amazing works of art, many of which inspired the great masters.

Take a closer look at some of the flowers in your garden and you’ll be endlessly fascinated. Take the African daisy, or Osteospermum. It’s a genus of annual plants popular in bedding schemes and there are numerous hybrids and cultivars in a wide range of lively colours. Sun lovers and easy to grow, I have them in flower beds and in containers.

Most are daisy-like, some double, but one in particular always catches my eye thanks to the unique design of its petals. They radiate out in a perfect circle, each one resembling a tiny spoon. I stop, I look, I smile, then I shake my head at this miniature work of art. It’s just one of the reasons to “get” gardening.


Friday, June 24, 2016

Slugfest in the Garden

It’s lurking in your garden — one of the worst killers encountered in horticulture. Not only does it kill; it maims and tortures too. If they weren’t so easily recognized by every gardener in the world, there would be wanted posters for this pest everywhere.

  • It is a voracious eater
  • It has disgusting habits
  • It is sloppy and slimy
  • It has a serious drinking problem
  • And it causes adults to squirm at the very sight of one

Slugs! They are the bane of gardeners everywhere. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t hate them. Even my live and let live philosophy weakens at the sight of a slug. Ugh! If it weren't for my steely nerve, I’d squirm too.

Gardeners are desperate to rid their yards of slugs. I could give you a list a mile long of techniques people have tried for dispatching this marauding mollusk. Sure, some of these tricks work, but only to a point. It seems the more slugs you slaughter, the more there are, no doubt a result of their squalid little sex lives. They bring a whole new meaning to monogamy — if you don't know, don’t ask; it's all part of slug evolution. Evolution? That’s a joke. I’d say slugs are at a bit of a standstill.

However, in yet another attempt to wipe out the slugs in my yard, I thought this year I 'd try a different approach, an approach based on the fact slugs have no friends, other than their nasty sluggy buddies. What with the whole world hating them and trying to kill them (and failing miserably), I wondered if slugs might just react differently if they thought someone, or something, actually liked them, or cared for them.

I had this great idea of using reverse psychology to make them go away. Instead of attacking them every step (and stomp) of the way, I decided to go to great lengths to befriend them, to show them compassion, even love them (okay, I may have had to fake it a bit). My theory was that this would prove devastating to their little sluggy psyches. I intended to kill them with kindness.

I began by setting out some of their favourite food on the patio — marigolds and hosta leaves, and some beer of course, but in a shallow container so they couldn't fall in and drown. I also swept the patio first to get rid of any sharp bits that might snag their little sluggy tummies. It certainly attracted them; they showed up in droves.

They were so confused by these seemingly random acts of kindness, they didn't know whether they were coming or going, which isn't surprising. They're a bit like the VW beetle that way — from a distance it's hard to tell which end is the front.

After a few days I had them exactly where I wanted them, eating out of my hand (ugh). This is when I began playing a few mind games. I thought, we’ll just see who’s well balanced around my yard. Now that I had their confidence I invited them to share a beer and chips with me — SALT AND VINEGAR — my favourites. I figured one chomp and they'd shrivel right up. They drank the beer of course, but they wouldn’t go near the chips. I don’t think they trusted me; they turned up their noses at them.

Noses? I’m not sure if slugs have noses. They do have eyes. I know that because they stick right out on the end when they get excited. One of them was obviously half-drunk and quite belligerent. He tried using his "eyes" to stare me down. Next thing you know we got into a staring contest. After 15 minutes I began to get nervous. I thought, if this sucker wins it’ll be slug anarchy around here. I stomped on it. That kinda put the end to the killing with kindness experiment.

I’m afraid my slugs don’t have a very high opinion of me now. I guess the feeling is mutual. I decided to go back to my old method for dealing with them. Instead of hand feeding, I’m hand picking. I try to dispatch them as humanely as possible — even accidentally. That way I don't feel too guilty. I use my garden clippers to gently pick them up and . . . oops, oops, oops.

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Thursday, May 19, 2016

Two Four Time

This is it, the traditional May two four planting weekend in this part of the world, but if you don’t get around to planting because of other exciting two four stuff, don’t worry. There’s plenty of time left for planting.

Once upon a time, most annuals were sold in tiny cell packs and it created an urgency to get them into the garden early to ensure they started growing, even though they wouldn’t budge until the soil warmed up. Now, with a trend towards larger, more mature plants in individual pots, timing is less critical.

Whether you plant this weekend or wait until early June, there is one thing that will help your flowers and vegetables when they have to face blazing hot summer days, and that’s mulch. In nature, there’s always mulch on the surface of the soil, usually in the form of a leafy layer.

Plants expect to be surrounded by mulch; bare soil is not normal. Covering soil conserves moisture, keeps down weeds, and if organic, it slowly adds nutrients to the soil as it breaks down. Over the years, I’ve used a variety of materials as mulch: leaves, manure, mushroom compost, wood chips, straw, shredded bark, and cocoa bean husks.

Anything that covers the soil surface while allowing moisture to penetrate does the trick. I’ll even use clippings from evergreen shrubs, and I always make use of my ornamental grasses crop. It does a fine job in the veggie garden. As they break down, they all help feed the soil, which is so important.

Wood chips or shredded bark are popular, especially on flower beds in front yard gardens. A few bags may be all you need, but if you’re a heavy user, consider ordering in bulk. When spreading mulch from four to eight centimetres deep, which is usually sufficient, a big bag will go a long way.

There has been a concern that as wood based mulches break down, they can deplete the nitrogen in the soil, but this only occurs in the uppermost layer and isn’t as much of a problem as was once believed. If you use wood chip mulches every year on the same flower beds, it wouldn’t hurt to sprinkle a little blood meal or alfalfa pellets on the surface to counteract the effect.

As mulch slowly decomposes, nutrients and organic matter are absorbed, feeding the organisms in the soil. This is a natural process, but it is far more complex than it appears, especially to anyone who dismisses soil as dirt — dirt is what you get on your pants after sitting in soil.

Soil is not inert brown stuff, devoid of life, although it may well be if it’s been regularly doused with chemical fertilizers. It is teaming with an incredible number of life forms, each of which has a role to play. Worms and soil insects are easy to spot, but it’s what we don’t see that’s tremendously important:  microscopic insects, fungi, bacteria (good and bad) all play a role. They form symbiotic relationships with each other and with the roots of plants and trees, processing organic matter and minerals, converting them into nutrients in a form that plants can use.

Healthy soil is essential, the source of the life above ground that we can see. As you plant like crazy over the next few weeks, give a thought to what’s going on below — and spread the mulch.