Saturday, December 26, 2015

Talking Turkey in the Garden

Don’t forget the cranberry sauce. It’s absolutely essential with turkey and, like the turkey, cranberries are native to North America. It’s not surprising then they go so well together. In fact, if I had to eat one without the other, it would be the cranberry sauce. 

Cranberries were an important staple for Native Americans, who used the berries mixed with grains, meat, and animal fat to produce cakes of pemmican, traditional travelling food. Aboriginal people shared their turkeys with the first pilgrims, but I don’t know if there was cranberry sauce on hand.

The pilgrims, however, came up with the name cranberry, or rather crane berry, apparently because they thought the blossom resembled a crane. I suppose it could just as easily have been called the heron berry or stork berry. It wasn’t long before early settlers were using the berries to make sauces and supply seafarers with scurvy fighting vitamin C.

 I’d grow them in my garden if I could, but the conditions aren’t suitable. One of the tricks to growing cranberries successfully was discovered in 1816 by Captain Henry Hall, a veteran of the war of independence in the US. He discovered that spreading sand over the bogs where the cranberries grew naturally increased the berry yield.

Commercial growers take advantage of ideal conditions in the Muskoka region of Ontario where the soil is sandy and moist with layers of peat, which makes it acidic. My soil, like most around the here, is clay with a pH value that is neutral to alkaline. Cranberry grows as a sprawling vine and needs little pruning. Once planted, they rarely need replacing and continue to produce berries providing the flowers are pollinated, primarily by honey bees.

Thanks to popular photographs showing lakes covered with berries, it’s understandable that many believe they are grown in water, or cranberry paddies, I suppose. Not so. The photos are taken during harvesting when the fields are purposely flooded. A small air pocket inside each berry causes it to pop to the water surface when shaken from the stem. The shaking, or raking, once done by hand with special rakes, is now accomplished by machines that gently comb the vines releasing the berries. They are then corralled and it’s off to the processor.

Unless you have a suitable boggy area in your garden, the only alternative is to grow them in a large container.  The turkey sauce cranberry is Vaccinium macrocarpon, not to be confused with the Highbush cranberry (Viburnam trilobum), better known as viburnum, the spring flowering shrub. It also produces fruit which, like the true cranberry, can be used to make wines, sauces, and jellies.

Although these plants are not related, growing conditions are much the same. The viburnum is also extremely winter hardy, as it should be, being a native Canadian. It’s the ideal shrub for shady, moist places alongside a stream or in a boggy river bottom, where moist soil ensures it grows well as its shallow roots make it susceptible to drought.

Planting the right plant in the right place is the key to success in gardening. To help the gardener in your life and take care of that last minute gift, consider The Toronto Gardener’s Journal by Margaret Bennet-Alder. This is the twenty-fourth year Margaret has produced this very useful source of information for gardeners in the Golden Horseshoe. Copies can be ordered online at Now, let me at that leftover turkey — AND the cranberry sauce, please.

Friday, December 18, 2015

An Exceptional Gift any True Gardener Will Love

It arrived last weekend by special delivery, my first gift of the season. I was puttering around the house when the doorbell rang. Standing on the doorstep, looking a little uncertain in his role as courier, was Jeff, my daughter's boyfriend (now husband).

He'd been called upon to make the delivery — perhaps as a test — something along the lines of, "Look, you don't have to slay a dragon, just take this over to my dad's place and you may win the hand of the princess."

I followed Jeff down to the driveway where he quickly unloaded my gift from the trunk of his car. He looked relieved, especially when he saw my face light up. I recognized the bag immediately — it wasn't gift-wrapped.

The stamp on the side read High Quality, Organic Horse Feed, except both Jeff and I knew that was not what was in the bag (obvious olfactory clues were emanating).

In the bag was high quality, organic horse feed after it has been recycled into organic fertilizer by the finest of thoroughbred race horses. Perfectly aged like a fine wine, it came from a farm down the highway that regularly places bags for sale at the roadside — same concept as a fruit stand.

My daughter had been along one time when I picked up a few bags and she knew how much I'd appreciate even more of the stuff. I thanked Jeff profusely and asked him if he knew what the stuff he'd delivered would do for lazy roses?

I'm not sure he understood. When he drove off he did have the windows down, even though it was cold out, but I suspect that if it had been a big white charger he'd been riding, he would have been sitting a little taller in the saddle.

Not all gardeners can expect to receive Christmas gifts of this remarkable quality. If you're looking for the perfect gift for the gardener in your family, it shouldn't be too difficult.

The secret is in knowing what will be appreciated and what will vanish to the back of the shed. Mine is spread across my rose garden for everyone to admire. It's the gift that keeps on giving (you should see my roses).

Friday, December 11, 2015

Holly Days are Here

I must have gazed at one to many poinsettias, or eaten one too many mince pies, because I’ve been indulging in a little nostalgia. Every year at this time, when I was a little sprout, my dad would take us holly gathering. It was such an exciting event, gathering holly to brighten the house at Christmas. 

Of course, in those days we were blithely ignorant of the times ahead when Christmas decorating would be raised to a unique art form by the use of plastic penguins and flashing flamingos in a Vegas scale display.

Each December we’d make the trek to our secret place where the holly trees grew, hoping to discover a bounty of berries. We weren’t always lucky; some years there would be a good crop, with lush clumps clinging to each twig on the tree, while other years there’d be hardly a speck of red to be seen. My dad always blamed the berry vultures — I don’t know if he meant birds or the people who’d been there before us.

Even in the best of years, only half the trees would bear any berries at all. Having only a limited understanding of procreation, we didn’t realize that only the female holly bears berries while, as usual, the male hangs around taking up useful space. Now that I’m older and wiser, I realize the lack of berries was likely due to someone not in the mood.

Nonetheless, collecting was never easy. Holly has wicked prickles, and you could be sure the best sprigs were always at the top of the tree, at the outer limits, barely within reach. Since we had no concept of a limb lopper, someone had to climb the tree. “Go ahead, Dad,” I’d say, “show me one more time. Maybe next year I’ll be able to do it.” In this way the ancient tradition of holly gathering was slowly passed down through our family.

Yes, holly gathering was a challenge, but it was worth the struggle. At Christmas, friends and family would visit our home simply to admire our lovely holly sprig, burdened with two, maybe three berries. Meanwhile, Mum would serve mince pies and Dad would lie on the couch, groaning, with a mustard plaster taped to his back.

Ah, yes, the good old days. I often wonder what Dad would have thought of plastic penguins.

Friday, December 4, 2015

You Gotta Love the Things

Bracts of red and leaves of green — first line of a poinsettia poem.  I was hoping to celebrate this amazingly popular Christmas decoration in rhyme, but that’s all I came up with. I tried, but once I had the image in my head I couldn’t go any further.

Regular readers know of my difficulty accepting the poinsettia as a plant, even though it is one, yet each year at this time I feel compelled to provide a little information that, if nothing else, might help keep everyone’s favourite centerpiece alive long enough to contribute to the spirit of the season.

I wrote last December of how I felt I’d come to grips with my phobia, of how I’d turned a corner, learned at last to accept the omnipresence of poinsettias, but by Boxing Day my usual disaffection had returned. 

I just can’t help it. I mean, who else has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal in an article glorifying the plant’s qualities as someone with an opposing opinion?

That bit of negative exposure sure ruled out any thought of Christmas shopping trips to Buffalo. I had visions of wanted posters at the border with me holding a poinsettia in one hand and a can of Roundup in the other.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy everything else about Christmas. The joy, the goodwill to all, and especially my mother-in-law’s mince pies, but I just can’t bring myself to embrace the poinsettia. It isn’t easy. 

Just last weekend I was at a Christmas dance and had to leave the dance floor in a hurry when the DJ began awarding you know what as spot prizes.

Regardless, I have a duty here, so despite any misgivings on my part, and the fact that at this very moment there is a poinsettia within arms reach of practically every person on this continent, here is everything you need to know to keep them looking happy and healthy, at least until Boxing Day.

First remove the garish foil from around the pot or at least poke holes in the bottom and set the pot on a saucer otherwise excess water can 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, again to avoid root rot. Water well when the surface is dry to the touch. Poinsettias don’t tolerate drafts so keep them away from air registers and doorways.

Bracts of red and leaves of green . . . take em away, they shouldn’t be seen — not bad.

Friday, November 27, 2015

It's a Garden Guy Gift Thing

It's that time of year when I feel compelled to join the Christmas onslaught and suggest a list of possible gifts for gardeners, much as I've done in the past. You know — buy this book, that tool, or those seeds.

If my intention is truly to support gardeners and ensure they receive an appropriate, garden related gift, then it might make more sense to disguise this column and connive to have it printed in the sports or
business section of the paper.

This is not meant to be sexist in any way, suggesting that all garden gifters are male while garden giftees are female, nor am I claiming that the fairer sex (and even that statement can be troublesome) never read the sports or business sections — BUT and it's a big BUT, I have overwhelming evidence to support my argument that the majority of gardeners in North America are female rather than male. It's much the same in Europe, although much less so in Britain.

I grew up there where it was perfectly acceptable for men to grow plants and flowers. My dad did, my uncles did, and so did their male neighbours. 

The popular pastime of tending a small allotment (a community garden) was largely the prerogative of men, and they didn't produce only cabbages and potatoes. They spent just as much time on growing perfect dahlias, mums, or sweet peas; although I'll willingly admit there was an element of competitiveness. 

A conversation between men about flowers was just as likely to be overheard in the local pub as one about cricket, rugby or soccer. This makes it difficult for me. Whenever I sit down with a bunch of guys, say for coffee or a beer, the conversation frequently turns to cars, baseball, or hockey. It never seems quite the right time for me to say, "Hey, anyone like to see pictures of my prize peony?"

No, the garden world is strongly weighted on the feminine side. Need more proof? Since 1998, I've operated a website called Garden Humour. Readers there can take a test to determine if they are a mad, passionate, gardener. Pass the test (and no one fails), and the applicant receives a certificate of membership in the fictional International Society of Mad Gardeners. Thousands have applied and guess what: 95% are women.

I also receive quite a few emails and letters in response to the columns I write. Guess who writes most often? I often speak at garden clubs and horticultural societies, too, and I can tell you, there is never, ever, a line-up at the men's washroom.

This isn't a scientific survey, but I've a feeling that the majority of my readers are more likely women, although any apparent lack of interest in gardening on the part of men could be due to them traditionally preferring not to ask for advice, but rather to figure things out for themselves. 

Regardless, the question of what to suggest as Christmas gifts for gardeners is more easily solved, since it's a given that, children excepted, those buying these gifts will most likely be men. As this is the case, there's a strong possibility that a large number of gifts will be hurriedly purchased at the last minute from a garden gift store on Christmas Eve. 

Many of these gifts will typically be what I call garden accoutrements. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Men can have good taste. I mean, you can hardly expect him to remember the more practical items you hinted at when you dragged him whining to a garden show last spring.

Because my research on the gender balance of gardeners is impeccable, I feel I can safely say that gardeners are overwhelmingly practical types, and more than anything, they will appreciate a gift they can actually use. 

Having said that, it is essential that a Christmas gift be a complete surprise, and so when you make up a list to pin on the fridge or slip into the sports section, be sure to make it a long one, and yes, it is permissible to underline certain items.

And what am I putting on my Christmas list? I'm seriously considering a request for a tee shirt printed with the slogan: REAL MEN GROW PETUNIAS

Friday, November 20, 2015

Martha Would be Proud of Me

The frost has finished off the last of the summer plants. This included the bowl of begonias that I've been dragging in an out of the garage every morning and night in a forlorn attempt to keep a few cheery blossoms going as long as possible.

In late October, it always feels as though there's never enough time to complete all my fall tasks, but then we're blessed with a few fine days in November and I find myself puttering about the garden looking for something to do. I took advantage of the last few days of good weather by making big piles of leaves for compost, then I tidied up the shed and I emptied the soil from the last of the planters before storing them away.

As I dragged away the two large ones from the front porch, I couldn't help but notice that the approach to the front door was now looking particularly barren. It had previously sported an assortment of containers, including the large enamel bowl that had held the begonias, although I'm sure the mail carrier is happier now that she doesn’t require the leaping skills of a gazelle to reach the mailbox. In fact, I'd fully expected her to give up by mid summer and simply toss the mail in the driveway. She's such a trooper.

I wasn't planning to seek out more stuff to replace the obstacle course, but it occurred to me that I should add something to the front porch to make it more welcoming, and a winter planter seemed like a good idea. I've seen pictures of them in magazines, but never got around to making my own. I already had the perfect container, the enamel bowl with soil still intact, so I began to think about what I could "plant" in it.

Red willow twigs seemed an obvious choice because I'd seen them stacked up for sale outside one of the garden centres — so many that I'm convinced there must be willow plantations to supply the demand.  Since it was a Saturday afternoon, and I was content to be in the garden, there was no way I was going to fight weekend traffic to fetch a few twigs when there surely would be stuff out back that I could use.

The red twigs were easy because the variegated dogwood that annually tries to invade the pathway at the bottom of the garden was asking for a quick snipping. I continued looking around for potential material. The yarrow still had large seed heads on and might have made the display, but then I spotted the limelight hydrangea. The heads are large, in proportion to the planter, and although a pale brown colour, they still had a faint pink tinge to them — perfect. The planter needed a little greenery — no problem. I snipped a few bits from the blue spruce that's hidden in the back corner. It wouldn't miss a sprig or two, and besides, I have to dig it out and find a new home for it next year before it grows any larger.

As I plunged my bits and pieces into the bowl, I realized the soil needed brightening up a little. In the shed I had just the thing — a lovely, rich brown coir (peat moss would have done almost as well). An inch of that on the surface made all the difference. A few pine cones I'd used as container mulch in summer to fill in the gaps, plumes of ornamental grass, and I was finished — or so I thought.

While walking the dog the next day I picked a few teasel stalks from the empty lot across the street and brought them home. Next, it was a pair of red seed heads from a sumac and finally I was done. Knowing when to stop is important, especially with my primitive Ikebana skills. 

I doubt a master like Martha Stewart would even let me weed the flowerbeds in which her plants grow, but I'm happy with my winter planter. Fortunately, the resident Ikebana master has tidied it up nicely and now the front porch looks a little welcoming. It shouldn't be much of a challenge to the mail carrier, but if the weather is nice this weekend, I might plant up another one — or two.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Enthusiastic, Passionate, Committed Gardener?

Are you an enthusiastic, passionate, committed gardener? Perhaps you're regarded less charitably by your family and friends as a touch eccentric, nay, even a little nutty? Ignore them; it's perfectly all right to be ardent about your pastime.

Most people display passion about something in their lives, although it's usually something that's strangely more socially acceptable, such as: being a rabid sports fan, a follower of the Kardashian saga, or waxing a car. However, admit to relishing the earthy fragrance of compost or brag about your prize peonies on a coffee break and you're soon relegated to the outer fringes.

And yet only a generation or so back, almost everyone was a gardener and it was considered a normal part of life. A patch of ground and a packet of seeds was how the family was fed. That's when a blackberry really was a blackberry. Meanwhile, flowers were grown to brighten the home and feed the soul.

Somehow, we're losing this challenge, this connection with nature. It can't be found in fast food, plastic flowers, or in the fragrance of an air freshener. It's in the elation felt when a seed sprouts, the taste of a fruit or vegetable that you grew yourself, or in seeing the soul feeding magic of petals unfolding. A garden is where the life enriching spiritual connection between mankind and this precious earth is the strongest.

With increasing concern about what we are eating, where it comes from, and what's in the food, plus the realization that we've cocooned ourselves in an unsustainable world; it may be that soon we'll come full circle and fully appreciate the skills of the serious gardener.

But how passionate and committed are you — to the point where eyebrows are raised or eyes roll? Do you go out in the garden for a few minutes and disappear for the day, no matter what the weather? Are you constantly moving plants around in your garden? Do you visit a garden centre and return with more plants than you can possibly find room for in your garden? Do you pull weeds in friends' gardens — or even public gardens? Do neighbours lock their doors and hide when they see your zucchinis ripening? These are all signs of a passionate, committed gardener — or should be. Who said that? Who said he's nuts?

Friday, November 6, 2015

Bloom or Bust

“How do I get my Christmas cactus to bloom in time for Christmas?” Sorry, I can’t help. It’s too late. This is really not the best time to offer solutions to the big question. Early fall might have been a better time to bring up the subject, but no one was thinking about Christmas cactus in September. You might be thinking about it now, but the time to do anything has passed.

This all came about as I was wandering around my local monster hardware store last week during a family excursion to buy paint. I don’t know why, but going there always seems more like a visit to a popular tourist attraction than a shopping trip — crowds, long line-ups, and hot dog vendors.

While we were in the store waiting for the paint to be mixed, I wandered over to a nearby rack that had caught my attention — it was full of bright red and green items,  more colourful than the pastel paints I’d been staring at for twenty minutes trying to decide between blue, blue, or a different blue. And no, it wasn’t an early shipment of the Poinsettias, it was a large  display of Christmas cactus plants. They were all in bloom doing their darnedest to entice shoppers to buy, a classic case of plant marketing -- sell while in bloom and let the petals fall where they may. 

Sadly, the ambient temperature might have been fine for keeping the paint flowing, but it was much warmer than these plants prefer. They were being subjected to a lot of movement, too, as shoppers picked them up and sorted through them, looking for something that wouldn't clash with the new wallpaper they'd just purchased. And they were under lights that hardly ever turn off — all the wrong conditions to promote blooming. However, at a buck fifty each they were a deal for those wily gardeners who are able to restore life to a dead stick.

Fortunately, the Christmas cactus (CC) is a resilient plant, and with a little care can potentially outlive the average shopper, but the plants I saw on display will likely have dropped all their blooms by Christmas day, and consequently far too many will go out with the wrapping paper, just like the other red and green Christmas plant, the one that every year is looking more and more like Christmas wrapping paper. But, with a little care, a CC can live for years and produce a show of blooms that the P plant can only ever dream of.

So buy now while the plants are on sale, but don’t worry about whether it will be in bloom this Christmas. We’re thinking about next year, we’re planning ahead. 

Friday, October 30, 2015

The Garden Shed of Doom

It may be Halloween, but I don't believe there are any ghosts or goblins lurking about in my garden, although a person might possibly be startled by Gneville. He's only a garden gnome, although in the dark I suppose he could be mistaken for a goblin, or one of the other malevolent denizens of the underworld, but then he doesn't have an evil grin. It's more of a silly smirk, making him about as scary as Barney the Dinosaur in a field of daisies.

As for ghosts, plenty of slugs and earwigs have met their end in my garden, in most cases rather suddenly. I suppose if they had souls and were inclined to do a little haunting, they'd be back to settle the score, but after a good frost, I've never seen a live one, let alone an apparition.

There are, however, plenty of folk who've believed all along that slugs are creatures from the dark side, and would rather think they don't exist in this world. So often, I hear complaints from daytime gardeners of holes appearing mysteriously in the leaves of plants, whole leaves missing, even complete vegetable gardens disappearing overnight. Trails of ectoplasm criss-cross flowerbeds supporting their belief that it must be some ghostly monster.

I've never been a believer in ghosts or monsters from the other side — common, or garden, but it's easy enough to be spooked in a garden after dark. There are always creepy things happening during the night — strange sounds, slitherings, clinging spider webs, and of course, raspberry canes that grope and grasp and won't let go. But these things don't frighten me.

I will admit, however, to being startled one night by a pair of eyes glaring at me from the back corner of the shed — probably just a cat or a rabbit I said to myself as I pitched the trowel and slammed the door shut behind me. For months, I avoided the shed after dark.

If you have reason to go into a garden shed at night, cough loudly, rattle the handle, and then kick the door before entering — and carry a your biggest hoe. And keep an eye on garden gnomes. Don't let the silly smirks fool you.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Three Alarm Fire

As usual, fall has been a blaze of colour with three-alarm fires everywhere. The hottest, brightest flames on show were most likely Euonymus alatus, appropriately named the burning bush. There's a grouping of them near the train station in Waterloo that were amazingly bright.
I have a Euonymus alatus in my garden. It is not ablaze. The best it has ever done is smoulder like a wet campfire on a May 24 weekend. It's one of the first shrubs I planted in my garden and it's been somewhat disappointing.
In the early days, old alatus flared up occasionally, but over the years it's never achieved the same fiery luminosity of others in my neighbourhood. Even now, after a brilliant fall, most of the leaves are a dull green, and the ones that have changed colour only look as though someone spilled cheap red wine on them. In fact, I should take a closer look as we did have a birthday party around here last week, but I didn't think the wine was that bad. No, my burning bush has been a disappointment. Dull, dull, dull.
Despite being a failure in my garden as the self-actualizing arsonist of the plant world, it has fulfilled other roles reasonably well, providing a pleasant green backdrop to summer flowering plants, while maintaining balance with other shrubs and trees nearby.
But it mainly filled a gap, and a gap filler is not what I need when I'm running out of space for new plants. This is why I've been slowly coming around to the realization that the burning bush has to go. I can't blame it for the lack of colour change. Fifteen years ago it was in sunshine, but now the shrubs and trees in that corner of the garden dwarf it, and consequently it's in almost full shade, which I suspect is one reason why it doesn't burn brightly, although I've seen others that do well without full sun.
My mind is almost made up. It has to go. I just have to bring myself to do it. There's no denying that Euonymus alatus is a good, easy to grow, trouble-free shrub. So trouble free and easy to grow, in fact, that it's become an invasive pest in milder US states like Connecticut or Virginia. Don't let this deter you from planting your own if you have a bright place for one. Around here, the winters are cold enough that it stays firmly put.
It grows well in most conditions and tolerates different soils, but isn't crazy about wet conditions. It can handle being in shade, albeit with subdued fall colour, and pests are rarely a problem. A natural vase-shape makes it an attractive specimen plant, yet it can also be grown and pruned as a hedge. Other names for the burning bush are winged euonymus, winged wahoo, or winged spindle-tree. 
Take a closer look at the next one you see and you'll understand why. The small, corky, wing-like protrusions along the stems become obvious after the leaves have fallen, making it an interesting plant for the winter garden. Darn, now I'm wavering again. (Update -- the burning bush went, hence the Barberry added).

Friday, October 16, 2015

Lotsa leaves -- indoors and out.

Leaves are falling in abundance, and not just outdoors. Chances are they’re clogging up the vacuum cleaner in the living room, too. When plants arrive indoors after returning from summer vacation on the deck, we shouldn’t be too surprised if they begin to shed a few leaves.

As days get shorter and light levels fall, it’s a signal to plants to slow down, even stop growing for the winter. Outdoors it happens slowly, but when a plant that spent the summer outdoors is suddenly dragged indoors where light levels are considerably lower, the plant is thinking winter, already? What happened to fall?

Between the shock and the panic it shuts down, stops growing and the leaves begin to fall. Leaves that weren’t healthy in the first place soon turn yellow and drop off. After a week or two the plant adjusts and rests awhile until late winter when it will begin to produce new growth.

Sometimes the plant owner panics as well, immediately reaching for the fertilizer in the mistaken belief the plant is starving to death, except force feeding a plant has the opposite effect. Instead of producing healthy leaves, guess what — they turn yellow. Fertilize only when there is active growth.

Yellowing leaves may be due to disease — bacterial, viral, fungal — and without a thorough examination by a Doctor House houseplant doctor, it can be hard to determine the cause. More than likely, if the plant was reasonably healthy outdoors, it’s less likely disease is the cause. More likely insect pests have hitched a ride indoors.

If left outdoors, most insects quickly succumb to frost, but when transported indoors they think they’re wintering in Florida, and since there’s usually a bit more action happening on a winter vacation, it only takes one pair of amorous bugs to begin producing offspring and soon enough they’re swarming over the plant, sucking the green life out of the leaves.

It’s not always obvious there are bugs on the plant as (a), they are frequently green, making them hard to see, or (b), they’re too small, making them hard to see, or (c) they’re green and small . . .

The usual suspects are aphids or spider mites — or both. The aphids tend to cluster around the stems and at the tips of new growth, if there is any. They are easy to see when clustered together, but by then they’ve already been reproducing like crazy, and worse still, aphids don’t need a mate to start a family.

The other pest, almost invisible to any one over fifty, is the spider mite. They love warm, dry homes, so conditions are perfect for them to start a new family. They can be found mainly on the underside of leaves and look like tiny reddish specks. Here’s where a magnifying glass helps considerably. Look closely and you’ll see that these tiny specks are moving about. They’re not true spiders; in fact, a real spider might keep them in check, but if one also happened to hitch a ride indoors, chances are it was flattened on sight by a half-crazed arachnophobe.

 When bringing plants in for the winter, it’s essential to check thoroughly for hitch hikers. Even then, they can be missed, so give the plants a good soaking with a 40-parts water to one-part soap solution. Best place to do this is outside or in the sink for small plants, otherwise into the shower with them. Spray every part of the plant — over and under stems, leaves, branches and even the soil surface.

After about fifteen minutes, rinse off the soap. Repeat a week later to be sure you got all the beasts. Oh, and if you have other plants indoors, quarantine the newcomers or you’ll be needing the garden rake indoors.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Gnomes United

Okay, hands up. Who owns a garden gnome? Confess, now. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. I’ll confess. I have one. I call him Darth Spader, not that his name reflects any ambition to take up a shovel and help out. He prefers instead to hang out unobtrusively behind a shrub.

Gnomes have seen their popularity rise in recent years thanks largely to the Hobbit movies, but I don’t believe this has had any effect on the status of garden gnomes. Polls show they are somewhat less popular than stray cats in a garden, even though they cause far fewer problems. 

Some find garden gnomes cute while others find them repulsive. Why, the Royal Horticultural Society considers coloured figures of all kinds, whether gnomes, fairies or similar creatures, unacceptable at any shows. And the little folk have always been persona non grata at the venerable old Chelsea Flower Show.

I’m showing support for the garden gnome because it is Oktoberfest, and garden gnomes do have a strong Teutonic background. The origin of gnomes hasn’t been as thoroughly researched as that of humans, but it does appear that the first clay garden gnome (der Gartenzwerg) was made in Graeferoda, Thuringia, Germany in the 1800's. While a first recorded appearance of a garden gnome in England was around 1840 at the estate of Sir Charles Isham, the 10th Baronet of Lamport Hall.

Not only are gnomes part of the landscape in Germany, for a while they were all the rage in Paris and became something of a status symbol in French gardens. Back in 2000, the chic Parc de Bagatelle in Paris displayed 2000 of the little guys throughout the world famous gardens, the very same gardens that a decade earlier displayed sculptures by Henry Moore.

Parisians flocked to the park to see the gnomes, and all was well until The Garden Gnome Liberation Front struck. After stealing 20 of the gnomes during a nighttime raid, the group issued a statement claiming responsibility and threatening to strike again unless the exhibit was closed and the remaining gnomes released. 

The communiqué further stated that the garden gnomes should not be ridiculed and should be released into their natural habitat (funny, I’d have thought that since they were garden gnomes, they were already in their natural habitat).

Unfortunately, gnome thieves are not only active in France. There have been many other instances of them going missing from gardens around the world, sometimes kidnapped with demands made for considerable ransom money. Even here in Waterloo gnome abductions have occurred.

I don’t know the details of the case, or whether the perpetrators were apprehended. I only happened to learn of it when I stopped by the annual police auction at the Waterloo detachment one Saturday morning a year or two back. The usual racks of bicycles were up for sale, along with household articles that had been lost or recovered, but over in the doorway of the police station, I discovered a group of garden gnomes. They were huddled together out of the wind, some of them ceramic, others concrete or plastic. Most were brightly coloured while a couple looked as though they’d been living rough. I assumed they were recovered after being stolen as a prank. A prank maybe, but heartbreaking to the owner.

For a moment, I felt an overwhelming urge to stick around and purchase the lot and take them home to share the garden with Darth, but I resisted. I really didn’t have room for them, and I somehow felt that Darth might not appreciate such a large invasion, solitary character that he is, so I left them to their fate, hoping they’d be adopted by a kindhearted gardener.

Whether you’re a fan of garden gnomes or not (George Harrison welcomed them into his garden and also included them on an album cover), they’re certainly controversial characters, and if they bring the good luck that they’re reputed to, then I’d say every garden needs one.

I should add that these are not real garden gnomes I’m referring to here. Besides sneaking into prestigious garden shows, genuine ones particularly love to attend Oktoberfest, all dressed up in their nifty gnome lederhosen. If you happen to discover one sleeping it off under the shrubbery in your back yard this week, ignore him. He’ll probably wander off after he wakes up. But if you can persuade him to rake leaves first, go right ahead.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Orange Globes Again

It’s hard to avoid those large, orange globes — you know what I mean. What do they call them — pumpkins? Yes, it’s that time of year and they’re sprouting everywhere, even crowding out election signs. They’re also a big news story — that is the big ones are. It seems there’s a record broken every fall for size and weight.

Besides the challenges of transportation to the weighing arena, there’s clearly a lot more involved in competitive pumpkin growing than just scattering a few seeds in the garden. I have grown pumpkins on occasion, and it was exciting the time I had one climb into a tomato cage. When it bulked up it absorbed the whole cage and became a goofy Halloween display all on its own, a performance artist pumpkin tottering on its three spiky legs with wires growing through its head — sort of a man in the iron mask look.

Yet I'm not competitive enough to dive into record breaking attempts, and besides, I really don’t have the room. My suburban lot isn't large enough to grow something the size of a garden shed, although it does sound almost like a practical idea. Plant it in spring, stop feeding when it reaches the appropriate size, scoop out the inside, then cut in the doors and windows and voila —  an orange garden shed. Not large enough? — I could grow a fresh one each year.

Durability might be an issue though, given how regular pumpkins tend to implode over time if left too long on the porch. I imagine a shed sized one could become its own compost pile overnight, then there’s an awful mess to clean up. I think I’ll stick with regular sized pumpkins — or even miniatures ones. Why not? Down sizing happened with pet dogs. If they get any smaller, we’ll be keeping them in bird cages.

As it happens, I did grow miniature pumpkins this year and I’m pleased with the results. They’re not really pumpkins, but they sure look like pumpkins. They’re just as orange, just as creased, and what’s more, my one plant produced dozens. They’re actually a plant in the nightshade family — same as potatoes and tomatoes. In fact, they've been called mock tomato. They’re also called Ornamental Eggplant, pumpkin bush, and my favourite, pumpkin on a stick. Solanum Integrifolium is the botanical name and it’s native to South East Asia.

It’s cooked there in stir fry dishes, but I'm not planning to eat mine without a little more research, but I am happy to grow it as an interesting ornamental plant. It was easy to grow and could have reached over a meter high if I’d given it a sunnier spot. I bought it as a plant in spring, although it can be grown from seed. I thought it looked interesting and stuck it in an out of the way corner in part shade then forgot about it until I saw golf ball sized pumpkins growing. 

Despite a lack of attention, my plant managed to produce a few dozen fruit. They’ll look perfect in a fall display basket — one with gourds and stuff. Not my thing, really. I think I’ll carve them as Barbie sized ghouls — or Barbie sized garden sheds. 

Friday, September 25, 2015

Don't Quit Yet.

Don’t quit now! Even though there’s been a little frost about, September and October are perfect gardening months. Cooler temperatures and no bugs make working in the garden a pleasure.

Gardening is fun — really, and the benefits are endless. It’s obviously a source of joy and satisfaction given the way people flock to garden centres in spring, but then spring gives way to summer and the concept of gardening for fun is set aside. It’s too hot and buggy, and the beach or cottage beckons. Then fall arrives; the grass turns green again and begins to grow, which means more mowing, and before you know it, there are leaves to rake.

But there are lots of other things to accomplish at this time of year. Fall is just as good as spring is for planting, even better in some cases, especially for trees and shrubs. They love this season, yet I’d hazard a guess that 70 – 80 percent are planted in spring compared to fall. Part of the reason is the natural inclination for gardeners to get out and do something in the garden, but it’s also because of the strong marketing that goes on, plus the plants look alive. They have green leaves and plenty of flowers, whereas at this time of year they might look dead.

Don’t be fooled. Trees and shrubs — and perennials, are going into dormancy rather than coming out — perfect for planting, whereas in May, just as the poor tree or shrub at the garden centre pops a few leaves, it’s tossed in a trunk or truck, shipped across town, dumped from the pot and stuffed into a hole in the ground. Someone runs the hose on it — when they remember — or they drown it, then it’s left to survive on its own while it bakes under a blazing sun. The poor plant has used what energy it had to pop those leaves, and now it’s supposed to grow new roots to support itself, with precious little help? For a tree, it’s the worst time to begin multi-tasking.

Plant a tree in early fall and what happens? Soon as it’s in the ground, the leaves fall off. But that’s okay. It’s not dead; it’s not even dying. Despite its appearance, it’s probably flourishing. Since it doesn't have to shove out leaves and impress the planter, it can focus on what plants do best in fall — they grow roots. The soil is warm, the sun is kinder, and there’s usually more moisture available.

With the help of a layer of mulch, the soil will stay warm enough to encourage roots to grow for months, even as late as December. Come spring, after a good spell of root growth, the tree or shrub will be bursting to produce leaves. One important note here, evergreens, unlike deciduous trees, lose moisture over winter, so they need to be well watered before freeze-up.

What’s even better about planting in fall is the price. Plant material is always less expensive. There’s a good reason for this. It costs money to store plants at a garden centres or nurseries due to the huge amount of work required to prepare containers for winter. In some cases, it’s necessary to provide heating. They’d much rather sell the stuff and restock in spring.

Everything I've said about trees and shrubs goes for perennials. They’re cheaper too and most will appreciate fall planting. If there’s an exception, it’s plants that flower in early spring. They may be reluctant, but then they probably won’t flower much in the first year anyway.

So, take a trip to the garden centre where deceptively dead looking plants and great deals are waiting, then get out in the garden and have a little fun. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Get Your Mums, Kids

It’s impossible to avoid them. Chrysanthemums are ubiquitous to the point I try to avoid them. I don’t have a single one in my garden. It is a mum free zone, except for the better half. I don’t mind them, but I can view mums any time. One trip to the grocery store, two minutes staring at their glowing heads and I'm mummed out, but I’ll admit they do look a lot better than bags of softener salt. 

Don’t get me wrong; I've no objection to others buying these plants. In fact I encourage it. There’s nothing finer than a pair of simulated headlights at the head of every driveway. I guess my mild aversion to them matches the feelings I have towards poinsettias and Easter lilies. They’re all plants — kind of. That is they’re all grown in greenhouses, but that’s where the similarity ends. They barely qualify as house plants. They’re really just decorations with a half life of a few weeks; then they’re done.

Regardless, however nebulous the connection with gardening might be, I have a responsibility to provide advice on the care of mums. Here it is: Simply place them in a sunny spot — or shady, and water them regularly until it’s time to replace them with pumpkins.

If you’re beginning to get the feeling that it would be a better idea if they grew in your garden as fall blooming perennials, there is no reason this can’t be so, but not with the ones that you buy at the grocery store. Okay, maybe, just maybe, depending on the quality of the plant, the time of planting, and winter weather, it might just be possible to have one survive and flower again in your garden. I've done it, but the odds of success are slim. Alternatively you could try wintering the pot over in a cool, non-freezing location such as an insulated garage or porch. Cut back the foliage as it dies down then keep the soil barely moist until spring. If it survives and shows new growth, plant it out in the garden.

The reason fall mums don’t adapt to planting in the garden is they’re greenhouse grown. Sure, they can withstand frost, but they've been forced into bloom for the season. They don’t have good root systems and are often pot-bound. The flowering stage, which is the selling feature, occurs at the end of the growth period, not the beginning. The plant is confused. Under normal conditions in the garden, mums grow through summer, flower in September, then shut down for the winter. Stick it in the ground now and it won’t even consider rooting out as the ground is freezing up.

The answer is to plant mums in spring. They’re available at most garden centres but guess what — they’re often ignored because they don’t have flowers. Few people think about mums in spring, probably because they don’t look anything like the glorious monsters that are presently reigning over every front porch in the city.  

But buy and plant them in spring and you’ll have the pleasure of watching them grow. They won’t need much care — a sunny location in reasonable soil, regular watering, and they’ll grow well. For best blooming, they can be pinched or pruned back up until July to create a bushier plant with more blooms for fall. Mulch around the plant in late fall and they’ll be with you for years.  

Think of the anticipation as the plant sprouts new leaves in spring and those little buds begin to form. Imagine the pleasure when the first one opens. That’s gardening, not decorating.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Don't Panic

The question keeps coming up. Should I cut back the dead foliage on my perennials in fall or wait until spring? This is an important question and deserves a lot of research before I can answer it emphatically. Research done. The answer is . . . please yourself. I say please yourself because the benefits or drawbacks are more relevant to how you feel about your own garden. 
Picture this: You have party at your house; it's 3 a.m. and you've just slammed the door on the last guest. Are you the type that washes all the dishes, tidies up, and then vacuums before going to bed, or do you simply collapse in the squalor? Of course, the answer is probably somewhere in between, depending on how the party went and whether you feel like holding another.
It's much the same in the garden. Whether you cut back the perennials or not largely depends on how you feel about the way things look, or whether it's the front garden or the back. Cut back or don't cut back? More than likely it won't make much of a difference. No one has ever come by my garden in summer and said, Ah, I see you didn't cut back your veronica last fall.
There are practical reasons for cleaning up immediately after a party and there are practical reasons to tidy up the spent foliage of perennials in the garden, but there will always be an opposing opinion, regardless.
In the garden, the pros and cons usually go like this: leaving all the stalks and seed heads on plants will provide food for birds during winter, meanwhile snow will collect and build up on the flowerbed, protecting the tender crowns of plants below. The mounded snow will also be aesthetically pleasing to the eye. On the other hand, insects and disease can remain with the foliage allowing them to be on site in spring ready to have another go at the plant.
Is the latter a concern? I'm not convinced. If you have plants that have obviously been afflicted with disease this year, then by all means remove and destroy the foliage, maybe the whole plant, but accept that many fungal and viral diseases are caused by organisms that winter over in the soil. Finding a needle in a haystack is a breeze compared to picking fungus spores from soil, and if you don't get every last one of the little devils, the problem will be back. The severity, however, is more apt to depend on weather conditions, rather than your diligence.
Remember the tar spot fungus that was plaguing maple trees the last year or so? It caused unsightly black spots on the leaves and we were warned to clean up every last leaf around the garden (I composted mine regardless). There's not much sign of tar spot this fall, but I'm sure it isn't because every leaf with a black spot on it was conscientiously removed from the province. More likely, it was a dry spring that disrupted the spread of spores. This is the cyclical nature of insects and diseases.
I'm afraid I still haven't answered the real question, so if it helps, here's what I do. On my roses, I cut back any extra long canes that will whip about in the wind, but leave pruning until next spring. I will also leave woody or evergreen perennials alone, but I might, if I'm in the mood, remove the mushy dead leaves of herbaceous plants like day lilies or hostas as these can provide hiding places for slugs to hide out. Unlike woody perennials which sprout from their stems, these plants sprout anew from their roots. I will wait, however, until frost has finished them off. Ornamental grasses sprout from their roots, too, but I wouldn't dream of cutting them back until spring. They are a highlight of my winter garden.

If you're still not sure about which perennials to cut back, take a clue from Mother Nature. After the party is over, she throws a blanket of leaves over the whole mess and doesn't worry about a thing. Don't you worry so much, either.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

To the Rescue Again

I feel a moderate sense of pride when I reflect on my current success story. It began almost a year ago when I stopped by a large local hardware store. I was only there to purchase a light bulb. Of course, it's almost impossible to purchase one light bulb thanks to multiple packaging. And thanks to psychologically effective display patterns and subconscious messaging, it's practically impossible to walk out of a large hardware store without a shopping cart full of things one isn't aware one needs when one enters the store.

However, I consider myself immune to advertising and subliminal messages and I managed to leave the store with only a two-pack of light bulbs. I did have a weak moment, though, just outside the door where I had to pass by the rejects from the attached garden centre.

They were mainly evergreen shrubs and half dead perennials, none of which I needed. I did give them the once over, but since I was in a hurry to get home and restore light to the bathroom, I didn't linger. The following day I went back to pick up a light bulb for the outside light over the front door. Since it was a sunny Saturday morning, there was no rush for the light bulb, so I was able to look over the plants a little more carefully.

I focussed on the perennials, hoping there might be something unique that I could scoop for next to nothing, but typically, these plants are ones that arrived at the store by the thousand and are only stacked at the door for a quick sale because it's closer than the dumpster.

It was then that I spotted it, almost hidden among the abundant spireas going for $3.99. At first, I thought it was a discarded support cane stuck in a pot, except it had a few yellow leaves hanging from it. There was a tag attached, though a faded one. I could just make out the words — Caryopteris 'Sunshine Blue', a small shrub. No Caryopteris had ever been grown in my garden. I'd never thought of planting one as they're barely hardy here. But, at $3.99, I'd nothing to loose.

I took my new plant home and sat on the bench while I figured out where I was going to plant it. These days, a new addition inevitably means replacing something else I'm tired of, or something that's performing miserably. The rose mallow (perennial hibiscus) that's been growing against the shed for years qualified on both counts — out it came (ironically, it was probably in better shape than many of the plants I'd seen crowding the door to the hardware store).

I then did a major refurbishing of the soil before planting the caryopteris, digging deeply, adding compost. I watered well then stood back. Nothing happened, other than the two leaves falling off. Later in fall, I mulched seriously all around the plant, hoping to ensure it would survive its first winter, more in hope than anticipation. 

It did indeed survive, although I had my doubts as it was the middle of June this year before it so much as sprouted a leaf. These were yellow, the same colour as the ones that fell off in fall. I've since learned that they're supposed to be a golden yellow, so it had not been quite so sick as it looked when I brought it home.

Right now, I'm feeling pretty good because over the summer the plant has flourished. Small blue flowers are appearing and it looks perfect in it's location beside the shed. Hmm, I just noticed the bulb is out on the table lamp. I'm off to buy a new one.

Friday, August 28, 2015

You Know You Need One

Zucchini — it can be a tricky word in a spelling bee. But it’s not a tricky plant; it’s a terrific plant. The zucchini contains valuable antioxidants and is a good source of vitamins A and C and potassium. It’s also low in calories making it an excellent choice for dieters.

The trouble with zucchini begins when it comes time to dispose of the crop. Place a few zucchini out on the sidewalk with a FREE sign on them and next day your pile will have increased. To avoid unwanted donations, people in my neighbourhood make darn sure they lock their cars each night. If you happen to arrive at harvest time with more zucchini than you can find homes for, remember that the food bank will always be able to use them — and anything else your garden produces. In fact, an extra row or two planted especially for them is a worthwhile venture.

The origins of zucchini lie in Mexico where they were grown as far back as 7,000 to 5,500 BCE. They were an integral part of the ancient diet of corn, beans, and squashes. These foods, known as the three sisters, are still the mainstay of Mexican cuisine. Because the climate there is ideal for these plants, I imagine the Mexican people must have the same problem with overly productive zucchini as we do, so if you happen to vacation there, it’s a good idea to check your luggage before leaving.

This is probably how zucchini made it to Europe, secretly stuffed into the packs of returning explorers, along with cheap Aztec souvenirs and three or four years of dirty laundry. The zucchini eventually found its way to Italy where it received its current name. In France it’s known as the courgette, a name the folks in the UK have adopted, although they refer to a larger and plumper variety of zucchini as a vegetable marrow, apparently because it resembles bone marrow — I’ll stick with zucchini, thank you.

Farmers today are developing lots of hybrids. We no longer have to settle for plain old green. Look for yellow ones or a combination of green and yellow. There are round ones too, and one that is a cross between zucchini and the fluted patty pan squash.

Zucchini are a warm season plant and will shrivel at the first hint of frost. This has been a cool, wet spring, but now that the soil is warming up it’s about right to plant a few — two or three are plenty. Like all members of the squash family they can be started easily from seed, but it may be getting a little late. Depending on how early frost comes in fall, the fruit may not have time to develop, so I’d go with plants. They’re inexpensive and available at many garden centres.

Plant zucchini a couple of feet apart where they can receive plenty of sunshine — the more the better. As for soil, they won’t complain as long as it’s well drained. Add organic matter if you can, but they are light feeders. Feeding zucchini with a high nitrogen fertilizer will only encourage over-production of leaves and stems, and a well fed one can easily take over a veggie garden, so don’t use up the lawn fertilizer on them.

They like to be watered regularly, and deeply, but zucchini hate to be wet as mildew can develop on the large flat leaves. To discourage this, avoid watering with a sprinkler. This is where mulch such as wood chips or straw is useful — I like to use straw myself. Besides keeping weeds down and moisture in the soil it will keep fruit clean and healthy.

As the plant begins to grow, the flowers, precursors of fruit, won’t appear until the plant has developed fifteen or so leaves. The first to appear will usually be male and won’t produce fruit. If you can spot a small swelling at the base of the flower, it’s a female and will grow on into a fruit. If there’s only a prickly stem, it’s a male. The male flowers can be picked off and eaten in a salad, but some are required for pollination of the females. Insects, primarily bees, will take care of this job. If bee activity is low, female flowers are likely to drop.

Other insects will take up pest duty. The cucumber Beetle is the worst of the bunch, attacking any members of the cucurbita family. Cucumber Beetles are either striped or spotted, and like to feed on the leaves of the plants. They can cause a lot of damage as they spread disease from one plant to another. Thrips and cutworms will also have a go at your plants too. I’d use insecticidal soap to discourage them.

Zucchini are susceptible to powdery mildew and bacterial wilt, diseases that are most common in hot and humid weather. A strong, healthy plant will be more resistant to these problems. Blossom end rot can also be a problem in dry weather. Zucchini seem to keep on growing without too much trouble. They’re best picked before they get too large because the bigger ones can be tough and lacking in flavour. But if you do want to try for the record, it’s around 2.5 meters — almost nine feet long.

Zucchini are such productive plants that first time growers, especially children, on seeing the rate at which the plant grows and the bounty it produces will be spurred on to try other plants that are much easier to spell, like peas and beans.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Quis est nomen illius planta?

"Quis est nomen illius planta?" I heard that frequently during the couple of days of my open garden last month. It wasn’t spoken in Latin, which is just as well as I probably wouldn’t have understood the question anyway. My command of Latin is pathetic. Most often, the plants for which I do know the botanical names are the ones that haven’t been given a common one, at least none that I’m aware of.

One in particular that attracted a lot of attention was a vine on the trellis. It has small, maple-like leaves and sprays of red flowers that turn yellow as they mature. I grew it easily from seed this year and it’s performed rather well. Naturally, the question arose — Quis est nomen illius planta? — about a couple of hundred times. I was happy to answer, but the only name I had for the plant was the botanical name from the seed packet that I had stuck in my back pocket (be prepared).

The plant in question is Ipomoea lobata and it’s a member of the morning glory family, except it doesn’t look anything like a typical morning glory. Hence the Latin, except it made me sound so pretentious. I’ve since learned, however, that it’s also known as firecracker vine or Spanish flag, but since no one else appeared to know it by either of those names, I’m going to make up my own. Henceforth, in my garden, it will be known as the ‘question’ vine.

On the other hand, the true name of certain plants is used more often than the common one, especially if it doesn’t sound too botanical. I was frequently asked about a plant in the perennial bed. It has sword-like leaves and show stopping red flowers. I was happy to reply that the plant was Crocosmia. It’s sometimes called copper tip or falling stars, but those names don’t seem to be in use around here, so I’ll stick to the botanical name.

Crocosmia is a great plant and deserves to be grown more often. There are only a few varieties available, ranging from yellow to red. Cultivars go by the names ‘Lucifer’ (orange-red) ‘Jenny Bloom’ (orange buds open yellow), ‘Meteor’ (yellow tinged with orange), ‘Red King’ (red with orange-yellow center), and ‘Emily Mckenzie’ (orange). ‘Jacanapes’ is red and yellow while ‘Golden Fleece’ is lemon yellow. In a group planting, they’ll pop out flowers for a month or two, and they’re also excellent as a cut flower.

Crocosmia are small corms and are usually sold in time for spring planting. Look for them in bulb catalogues if you don’t spot them at a garden centre. They may not flower the first year, but then they reproduce nicely. Interestingly, they’re not supposed to be hardy in this region, and it’s often suggested they be lifted for the winter, 
yet mine have been coming back year after year without the slightest care. They aren’t too fussy about soil as long as it’s reasonably fertile and well drained.

If you have any doubts about their hardiness, plant them against the house in full to part sun, but I have hundreds of witnesses who can confirm that mine grow just fine in the middle of the garden, and they all know the correct botanical name, should anyone ask.

It's a pleasure to share, to discuss plants, and to answer questions from so many garden lovers, like "What’s the name of that plant?" Why, I frequently replied, it's Anonomenthanum something or other.

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Ruthless Gardener

I confess, I have a dark side. I’m ruthless when I have to be. I don’t like admitting this even if it is a character trait that’s admired in some quarters — sport, business, shopping, but in the garden? Sadly, yes. To be a successful gardener, it’s essential to be ruthless. Plants will test your patience. They can be fickle, stubborn, uncooperative, and downright frustrating.

Give some an inch and they’ll take over your garden; give others their own premium location and they sulk. It’s too bad plants aren’t sentient enough to realize that if they don’t grow as expected in my garden, there are severe penalties — and I’m a tough love judge, a three strikes and you’re out judge, a hanging judge. In fact, I make Judge Judy look like Mother Theresa on valium.

Oh yes, my garden may look peaceful and serene, a botanical sanctuary, but it didn’t get that way by me being a sentimental wuss. Insensitivity goes a long way in garden care. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of opportunity for rehabilitation, and the three strikes and you’re out policy is relaxed if it isn’t three consecutive strikes, which a few plants appear to have figured out. They play dead for a couple of years then give a gold medal performance. I praise them, I reward them with an extra layer of compost, and then the following year they look like they fell off the final sale rack outside the grocery store. Then I have to start over and give them another chance.

I have to accept it’s not always the fault of the plant. It might have had a lousy childhood in a greenhouse, or it could be in the wrong type of soil or in the wrong location. The soil in this area is generally alkaline, but up in cottage country or in boggy areas it can be more acidic. Stick a Rhododendron or azalea in soil that’s too alkaline and it will refuse to grow well. If a plant likes sandy soil, it won’t appreciate clay for its roots. Some like moist soil, others like it dry.

It might be too hot, too dry, too wet, too windy, too sunny, or too shady for a particular plant’s liking. There are variations between species. For instance, blue or green hosta prefer more shade while the gold or yellow types like more sun. This is why, even though I may be ruthless, I take all these factors into consideration before sentencing. 

I often move plants around, sometimes two or three times until I find a spot the plant is happy with, but then what happens? It grows like it’s on a mission to replace the lawn and I have to dig three quarters of the plant out before there’s no room for anything else in the garden. For instance, I have clumps of daylilies that I seem to recall adoring, but they’ve begun to annoy me and will have to be dug and divided, or even disposed of. 

If, after I’ve done everything possible to provide perfect conditions for a plant and it still doesn’t bloom or show any sign of enthusiasm, I’ll stick it in a corner out of the way and ignore it for a while. Finally, I’ll offer it to someone else to see if they can grow it, otherwise it’s onto the compost heap. Then what happens? It lies there gasping in the sun for half a day and suddenly pops out a single, amazing flower, as though to mock me. And what do I do? I hastily stick it in a pot and try to coax it back to life. Yes, I’m ruthless when it comes to gardening.