Friday, March 24, 2017

Genuine examples of passionate (mad) gardeners:

I have to stop at every garden centre in town including home improvements stores. I spend winters slobbering over seed catalogues and doodling garden designs on everything in sight, including the kids homework. I rip up every inch of the yard millions of times over till I am happy with the outcome.

All my trees have people names, so friends think I always have friends to talk to when I say "Yesterday, I was speaking to Paul about the dry weather" (Paul is a 70-year-old twisted hazelnut tree!).

Balancing on one crutch, digging holes to plant tomatoes in June.

I will go out to the garden in the morning in my PJs to see how everything is. I stop to pick a weed (or so I think), and I'm still there in my PJs at two in the afternoon, still in my PJs.

I bought four coleus plants eight months ago. I couldn't even spell propagation, and now I have 400 of the little devils!

I don't usually keep secrets from my husband, but I never show him my receipt when returning from the gardening center.

I think moving 300 or so plants from one house to another counts!

The dirt under my nails is layered in strata.  My favorite cologne is eau de earth.  I garden by flashlight.

I never met a plant I didn't want.

I talk to my plants and play classical music for them. 

My husband is crying "No more flowers, no more flowery dishes, no more of flowery wallpaper, " but I can't hear because Im in the winter garden preparing for more flowers!

I pull more weeds in other people's gardens than I do in my own.

I think moving 300 or so plants from one house to another makes me a mad gardener!

Growing . . . growing old, excited, cuttings, seeds, happy, fatter, dirtier, smarter. Gardening madness helps me to grow all these and many more!

Let's just say, my husband often brings out a shop light so that I can continue to see what I'm doing.

Obsessed! Thats what my family says I am.  I am determined to eradicate every blade of grass from our Florida lawn and replace it with plants for birds and butterflies.

I have childhood memories of being in the car with Mom on the way to nurseries, her knuckles whiter on the steering wheel, speedometer clicking ever higher, breath coming faster . . . I dont really think of myself as mad, just that I'm a bit like my mother. 

Getting up at 3 am to widen a border so the family didn't catch me removing yet more lawn. I'm banned from doing that.

There isnt a bare spot in my house. I have plants on every surface tables, chairs, floors, windowsills, husbands bar, everywhere. Theres no lawn left. Ive even moved onto my neighbors property.

I am obsessed . . . can't think about anything much other than my garden. Hard to pass the garden centres without stopping in to see if a plant says "take me home."

I spend more time thinking of and planning where I can use or obtain more plants than I spend on what to have for dinner.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Spring is Bouncing About

Finally, I am able to see part of my garden again. Most of the snow has almost left, revealing a very grubby scene. I cleaned up the patio, tidied the shed a little — just enough to be able to get past the doorway. I even did a little pruning when I tentatively approached my climbing rose, snips in hand. We don’t get along. A snip here and there at a couple of wayward canes and I was soon reminded that full combat gear is essential.

Sure, it looks lovely in full bloom, but winter reveals a bad tempered monster fully intent on crushing the arbor. It’s the Jekyll and Hyde of my garden. I have to cut out old, woody branches, plus dead or damaged ones. I try to remove all the weak, stringy shoots, if I can get at them, and I must shorten the healthy ones that are trying to snag my neighbour’s gazebo. The trick is to bend a few healthy canes horizontally to encourage more blooms.

It’s all worthwhile in the end, but it’s rarely a painless process when every thorn is out for blood. They’re only wannabe thorns as technically they’re prickles — outgrowths of the stem surface rather than true thorns. Call em what you like, they’re still nasty, but I’ll forget that come June when the arbor is a mass of pink blooms.

I have other shrubs that need attention and are far less trouble, but I couldn’t get near them until the snow melted. Most shrubs and trees are best pruned while dormant, especially deciduous ones, and right now they’re about to wake up. A little pruning after leaves sprout won’t cause harm, it’s just easier to see what needs trimming — dead, diseased, and wayward branches. They should be cut out, and if the shrub needs shaping at all, now is the time to do it unless it’s a spring flowering shrub.

Here’s the standard reminder: Do not prune spring flowering shrubs until after they’ve finished blooming or you’ll be removing flower buds and it won’t bloom at all.

It’s easy now to check online for pruning requirements of specific plants, but it’s essential to know the species or variety. For instance, I often hear of problems with hydrangeas not blooming. Sometimes it’s due to environmental conditions, but it might just be because someone with a sharp pair of snips and misplaced enthusiasm has lopped off the flower buds.

Mop head, lacecap, and oakleaf species all bloom on old wood, that is, stems that have been on the plant since the previous summer, so prune immediately after blooming (if neccessary), but no later than the end of July.

Paniculata and Annabelle types set flower buds on new growth and can be pruned in fall, winter, or early spring. The so called endless blooming varieties can be pruned almost anytime.

A similar situation exists for clematis. Again, some bloom on old wood, some on new, and some on both old and new, which means there are three different pruning methods. It’s usually noted on the tag, but if that’s long gone, to correctly identify the type, simply observe how and when the flowers appear. 

Fortunately, pruning at the wrong time won’t kill clematis, not when it’s well established. If it’s an out of control, straggly mess and doesn’t flower at all well, it may be worthwhile to have a fresh start by cutting it back severely. This may result in fewer flowers this year but it will recover.

The bottom line for any pruning is 1. Know the plant. 2. Only prune if necessary. 3. Be absolutely sure because you can’t glue branches back on the tree.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Start em Early

If you wait until young people are teenagers and then introduce them to gardening by telling them to go mow the lawn, it will hardly endear them to the pastime. But, when you plant seeds with a child, you’ll be planting a seed in their head. When the seed in the soil sprouts and begins to grow, the magic of this amazing process will never be forgotten.

This is important, this understanding of how the natural world works. We’ve heard how too many city children can make no connection between milk and a cow, and I dare say there as many who haven’t a clue where the lettuce on a Big Mac comes from — it grows in dirt? — Oh yuck.

Okay, it may have been grown hydroponically, but my point is, we now have a generation that has had little contact with the natural world. There’s practically nothing that can’t now be done online in a virtual world, including gardening. Sure, there are no dirty hands, but a computer program will never replicate the joy in the face of a child seeing their very own seeds sprout — or maybe it will. Maybe it doesn’t matter; maybe it’s too late, but it will be a loss, so start seeds with a child today and give them a gift they’ll never forget, something they may need someday.

It’s easy enough; young plant growers need seeds, a container, and soil. Other essentials are warmth, light, food and water, and a few minutes of attention each day.

Small children (and plenty of adults) need instant gratification; therefore fast germinating seeds are essential for the first time grower. Fast germinating flower seeds include Centaurea (bachelor buttons) 5 to 7 days, Cosmos 7 to 10 days, and Zinnia 5 to 7 days. A favourite of mine is Four-o’clocks (Mirabilis). It’s ideal for small children because the seeds are large and easy to handle. Soak them overnight and they’ll sprout surprisingly quickly.

For a container, almost anything that will hold soil will do providing there’s a hole in the bottom for drainage. Mini greenhouses for starting seeds are available, including whole kits, but using stuff from around the house is fun. The container should be deep enough to hold 50 – 75mm of soil. Too shallow and the soil will dry out quickly. Clear plastic food containers are great because you’ll be able to see the roots growing as well as the plant. Use a second one as a cover and your mini greenhouse is complete.

Fill with a light, good quality potting soil, not garden soil as it may contain weed seeds and unwelcome bugs. Moisten the soil before planting, and then after you’ve planted the seeds, cover them lightly with more potting soil, but not too deep. Too much and the seed won’t have enough stored food to make it to the surface.

Some seeds need light to germinate, while others prefer darkness. This information is usually on the seed packet, but regardless; don’t plunk the container down on a window sill in full sun right away. It will get far to hot and broil everything. The soil has to stay moist but not wet.

When the seeds have sprouted, remove the cover and move to a sunny location beside a window, but avoid a window that faces full south as it may be to hot for the seedlings. If they grow leggy and lean towards the window, it means they need more light (growing under lights avoids these problems). 

It’s essential to check at least once a day to ensure the soil hasn’t dried out, but don’t over water. It’s best to water from the bottom if possible as a permanently moist soil surface can result in fungal problems.

Remember, like seedlings, kids need care and attention, but as they grow they become tougher, tough enough to rake and hoe, to plant and harvest, to pull weeds — and mow lawns. Start them early for future success.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Put Down That Chainsaw

It’s almost spring, and despite the overwhelming urge in gardeners to get out there and do something, anything, the garden will either be snow covered, frozen, or muddy. This does dampen the excitement a tad, but just being able to walk around the backyard is a pleasure.

If I can actually see the ground, I find enjoyment cleaning up the detritus of winter, wondering why junk mail and flyers were so efficiently delivered to all points of the garden. The sign should have at least stopped them at the mailbox — I thought it was politely written.

Spring joy aside, fun in the garden is limited. As an aside here, I’m calling it fun instead of work as that word is so inappropriate. It’s a word that puts people off finding the pleasure in gardening. Meanwhile, I plan to tidy the shed. It’s a make fun project where I prepare the shed for my annual springtime recluttering.

All the pots and trays that I tossed in there during planting last season can now go for recycling, something I should have done a year ago. I’ll likely discover broken pots, and tools without handles that have been on the repair list far too long. I'll probably leave them on the must fix list for just a little while longer. Yes, it’s going to be fun.

Something I should do is sharpen all my pruning tools. I don’t have many as I find a pair of manicure scissors and a chainsaw take care of most pruning requirements. I’m joking, of course, despite the awareness that there is a school of thought that believes a chainsaw alone is sufficient, and the bigger the better.

Chainsaws aside, this is a good time of year to do a little pruning while everything is still dormant, and I do have a few things that need attention. I’m cautious, however, when offering pruning advice to others. Too much snipping and hacking is as bad as pruning nothing until there’s a threat to cut off utilities because the meters can’t be read.

First rule of pruning is, if a tree requires ladders and chainsaws to lop off branches, unless you’ve at least auditioned for Cirque Du Soleil, I highly recommend hiring a professional.

If a tree needs branches removed, don’t cut flush with the main trunk; cut just at the outer edge of the branch collar to allow for healing. If the branch is of any size, make an undercut first to prevent it from stripping the bark back to the trunk as it breaks. Some trees tend to bleed sap heavily in spring. There’s not much that can be done to prevent it, and it is harmless.

Painting with sealants or fashioning tourniquets around limbs isn’t recommended (unless it’s your own limb, chainsaw wielders). If the sap looks unsightly, prune later when it will be hidden by foliage. Evergreens such as spruce and pine are unlikely to need much pruning.

Unless trees are obscuring vision, I don’t like to see the lower branches of evergreens removed. It’s unnatural and the tree can suffer when the sun dries out the soil below. If you must, add mulch to compensate for the lack of shade.

As for shrub pruning, don’t prune ones that flower in spring until after they’ve bloomed or there’ll be no blooms at all. The exception might be if there’s a need to take in hand something that dreams of being a privacy screen for an aircraft hanger. Otherwise, prune only where necessary to remove dead, damaged, or diseased branches, including branches that rub against others.

That should keep us having fun for at least an hour or two. If the wind picks up, I may have more junk mail to attend to.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Zap Those Plant Pests

My neighbour, Olaf, has a large collection of houseplants. They keep him busy through the winter -- help keep his mind off TV. Like me, he watches too much, especially late movies. Still, he's always complaining. His plants are either turning brown or the flowers are dropping off. If it isn't white fly, it's scale.

There seems to be no end to the pests Olaf has to put up with. His latest problem is fungus gnats -- those things that look like fruit flies -- speaking of which -- I’ve never seen one in a grocery store. Racks and racks of fruit displays screaming eat me, eat me, and not a fruit fly in sight. This worries me. I leave one grape on the kitchen counter and the fruit flies are rolling it out the door!

Anyway, back to Olaf. The Fungus Gnats were driving him nuts. He’d tried everything to get rid of them, but they kept returning. I told him, "You have to destroy the source. They're laying their eggs in the soil, you know. The eggs hatch into tiny larvae and then turn into the gnats that are bugging you”

"Oh, really," he said.

Next day, Olaf went down to the local petro-chemical by-product outlet and purchased a variety of toxic waste to drench the plants and soil with -- so much that I'm surprised he didn't get a visit from a U.N. weapons inspection team. Even so, the stuff had little effect. The gnats vanished all right, but a week later they returned -- bigger and meaner. Olaf was wild.

Since then he’s tried everything: soaking his plants in the shower, wrapping them in plastic, and even heating them in the microwave (moderately successful as far as wiping out the gnat larvae, but it made the leaves a bit crisp). Things got really serious when he put all his plants in the garage and ran the car to try to asphyxiate them. It might have been successful, but he had to call off the experiment when the Peace Lily passed out.

Olaf asked me over for a beer the other weekend -- told me that at last he had a sure-fire way to zap the critters in the soil. "Follow me," he said, and led me into the garage. The car was in there, and so were all his houseplants -- lined up like they were on death row.

The hood was up on the car and he had a pair of cables attached to the battery. The other ends of the cables were hooked to two large meat probes.

"These are my bug-zapping light sabres," he said. “Watch this.” He then yelled, "Clear," just like on E.R. -- or St. Elswhere if you're still watching re-runs -- and plunged the two meat probes into a pot containing a huge schefflera.

Sure-fire was right. Blue sparks flashed and the battery began to smoke as steam rose from the soil. Both Olaf and the schefflera shuddered. "There," he groaned, "that should fry em." I wasn't convinced; I've seen too many Frankenstein movies. I got out of the garage fast with visions of a crazy professor and mutant larvae flashing to mind.

It's been a month now and Olaf still hasn't solved his fungus gnat problem. Last time I talked with him he was thinking of taking them down to the grocery store and standing them beside the fruit racks for a day or two. Meanwhile, I've stopped watching late movies and, just as a precaution, I got the screen on the window fixed.

WARNING! This is fiction. Do not attempt this at home, or anywhere else for that matter -- you may wind up on Grey's Anatomy. But if you see Olaf's sure-fire bug killer on a late- night infomercial, remember, you saw it here first.

TIP: The above might work, but the best is yellow sticky strips and a layer of grit or perlite on the surface of the soil.

Lost in the Art Gallery

As pretty as the landscape is now, shrouded in white with impressive icicles threatening to drag eaves troughs from roofs, I’m beginning to miss color — real colors, not indoor TV colors, but colors produced by nature.

That’s what I was thinking the other day while at my local hardware store browsing an extensive display of seeds. And then I began to think of summer gardens and burgers on a barbecue, probably because of the barbecue in the corner, marked down for an unlikely winter sale.

I refocused on the seeds and I was no longer in a hardware store, but in an art gallery of miniature still lifes. I gazed at the packets of rosy red tomato seeds, marveled at the complex shading in the ruffled leaves of Romaine lettuce, I compared the subtle hues of the shiny green peas, and I admired the glamour shots of the ornamental gourds. Then it was on to the flower seeds — bouquet after bouquet, tiny images of exquisite beauty, each one screaming buy me, buy me.

And I did, but I only bought a single packet of seed, and what’s more, there wasn’t even a picture of a flower on it. It was the name that caught my eye — Columbine (Aquilegia).

Now, I’m a sucker for columbine; it’s one of my favorite flowers, but beneath the species name on the simple white packet, in large uppercase letters it said: Lime Sorbert.
Lime Sorbert? Despite the misspelling, the urge to buy seeds combined with images of sizzling burgers then culminated with a flash image of a dripping lime sorbet. How could I resist?

Am I the only one who shops in this way, allowing a stream of consciousness to influence my decisions? I’d only gone in the store to buy screws; at least that’s what I told myself. Oh well, regardless of how I got there, I came home with a packet of seeds to add to the pile that I’m already coaxing into life, but I can always squeeze one more columbine into my garden.

When I left the store, clutching my packet of seed, it was snowing again and the summer images quickly dimmed, except for the sizzling burger. Just had to make one more stop before heading home.

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.