Friday, March 24, 2023

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.

Thursday, March 9, 2023

Planted Picture Frames 2004

I like messing around with plants, in addition to growing them, and I have one “arrangement” that always attracts attention. I got the idea sometime in the late 1980s when I was over at a friend’s place, idly flipping through an old copy of a National Geographic magazine. I was looking at pictures in a story on the Appalachians when something caused me to look closely at an image of a rustic mountain homestead. There were plants growing on the wall. I’d no idea what they were, but that wasn’t what caught my eye. They were growing in a picture frame. That’s impressive, I thought, I must try that some day.

Fast forward a few years and after figuring out how to do it, I did get around to making the first of many hanging frames fille
d with plants. It wasn’t difficult, just a piece of plywood, preferably pressure treated, with a frame around it, then a piece of wire mesh sandwiched between it and an outer decorative frame. In this case old barnboard left over from the fence. I first made a couple of small ones, about forty by fifty centimetres (15” x 20”), and a later one about twice that size. I soon learned smaller is better as the big one was heavy, something to think about when hanging pictures.

Since it would be hanging on the wall, the plants would have to be something tough enough to survive growing in challenging conditions. I decided on sempervivum — hens and chicks as they’ll grow anywhere with little soil, and the frames would only hold an inch or so. As for soil, regular potting mix was too light and could fall out, so instead I used garden soil that I could squish into the wire mesh. I didn’t hang the frames the moment I’d planted them or the plants would have fallen out. I gave them a whole season to allow them to root securely through the wire mesh.

I don’t leave them hanging on the wall in winter, although the plants are hardy enough. I take them down and simply store them in a sheltered spot, out of driving rain. Even when they’re on the wall, I place them away from the prevailing wind to avoid the soil eroding or the plants washing out in a storm. They do need watering occasionally, but only lightly. I have since tried using other plants. Small sedums work well, and if I had room for them indoors, I could use tender succulents. I once planted one with Scottish moss and it looked like a small piece of lawn. However, it required more care than ones filled with succulents.

I’m obviously not the first to create these living pictures. It could well be the person living in that rustic cottage in the Appalachians or even earlier by the gardener who took care of the hanging gardeners of Babylon. They aren’t difficult to make, and I have done workshops in the past for garden clubs, so they are popping up here and there. I did once see the same concept on sale at a garden show at an exorbitant price for something I knocked together with a few pieces of wood. $300? I could buy at lot of plants for that.

If you use this design to make one, please credit  --

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Sick Seedlings

Starting seeds indoors is always fun, but sometimes it can be disheartening, especially for beginners when newly sprouted seeds begin to grow and then overnight the seed tray looks like a mini tornado swept through. Seedlings are left horizontal, dead and dying, and appear to have had their stems pinched right at the soil level.

What happened is a disease called Damping Off. It’s caused by any of a number of fungi that occur in all soils and tends to attack slow-growing or weak plants. As the name suggests, the disease prefers damp conditions, exactly what is required for growing seedlings. There used to be commercial fungicides designed specifically to control damping off but they are no longer available to home gardeners.  A few precautions, however, can reduce the likelihood of damping off. 

Use clean containers and a soill-free potting mix for starting seeds. Fill seed trays or pots right to the brim with the soil and avoid spreading seeds too densely. This allows for more air movement at the surface. A small fan blowing across seedlings can be helpful, but keep in mind this can rapidly dry out the soil.

If you start your seeds under a plastic cover, which is the usual way, remove the cover as soon as germination has taken place as fungal growth loves the high humidity under the cover. For the same reason don’t overwater and avoid watering from above as this ensures the soil surface remains damp and conducive to fungal growth.

Many untested suggestions such as sprinkling cinnamon on the soil surface have made the rounds online, and though cinnamon does have anti-fungal properties, the only hard evidence is on cinnamon oil, rather than the powder (which may not be pure cinnamon), so I’d save it for the hot chocolate and apple pie.