Thursday, May 19, 2016

Two Four Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 13, 2016

Macho Gardening

Gardening a macho pastime? I don't think so. Lots of men must garden, of course, but you wouldn't think so judging by the people passing through the garden centers and nurseries. I've been spending a fair bit of time in them this spring and they're always packed with women.

I'm often the only guy in the place. Oh, there's the odd man present — dragged there against his will. I usually spot him kicking the tires on the wheelbarrows, or browsing the tool display, checking out all that tungsten steel and carbon fiber — macho materials. He won't go near the flowers and vegetables; they're just not tough enough.

You can hardly blame the guys. They're overloaded with genes that attract them to power equipment like slugs to hostas. Give a guy a garden job and he'll find the horsepower to accomplish it, and with as much noise as possible. Mowers and blowers, chippers and clippers — that's gardening! What's the use of a lawn if it's not big enough to handle a riding mower? Garden work to men is spreading fertilizer, tuning up the tools, hosing down the patio, even painting the driveway. Definitely not fiddling with flowers.

Gardening has traditionally been the women's job — something to keep her busy between fixing meals and doing laundry by hand for a family of fifteen. Man's thing was ploughing fields and felling trees — a different kind of nurturing. Just don’t call it that.

The fundamentals are all there; it's just a matter of redirecting their focus, and it's happening. Men are beginning to reveal their nurturing side. They're changing diapers and hugging their kids, even ordering the pizza. With a little re-training they might enjoy tending a garden. They already appreciate a nice landscape; they just don't know it.

Every weekend golf courses are crowded with guys whacking little balls around a vista that could have been designed by Capability Brown, except I'm not sure they even notice it. They're too busy getting terribly frustrated because the ball never goes where they want it to go. It must be so stressful. If it weren't for the calming effect of the pastoral scene they'd be whacking each other around (green rage).

I've nothing against golf. It's just that men need to learn that gardening is healthier, more fulfilling. Once that ball is dropped in the cup, that's it! Nothing else happens. It's non-productive, and they always come home disappointed. If they tried dropping little plants into holes, instead of little balls, then watching them grow, they'd be winners every time.

So how are you going to bring out the gardening nature in a man? You could take advantage of his competitive instinct by giving him a packet of monster pumpkin seeds and telling him nobody's ever grown one bigger than fifty pounds. You know, plant the seed! I know one woman who had great success using a subliminal technique. She cut pictures out of garden magazines and pasted them into her husband's copy of Sports Illustrated. I'm not sure what the pictures were, but the following week he went out and switched his subscription to Roots and Fruits.

I think the marketing people could help a lot too. If they can convince a whole nation to tune in to the Stanley Cup in the middle of June, then surely they can turn men on to gardening. They're missing a huge opportunity.

Can you imagine the effect of placing a picture of Rory McIlroy on every packet of pansy seed? What would happen if Captain America was a guest host discussing delphiniums on the Martha Stewart show? I know it's a bit sexist, but how about using the Beyonce or Kim Kardashian (never thought I’d ever write that name) to sell bedding plants. Men would be browsing seed catalogs all winter.

Think of it, though, a world full of gardeners. Flowers everywhere. Macho male world leaders getting together for a photo opportunity as they turn a compost heap. Wouldn't that be wonderful? Everyone growing — happier, healthier, and peacefully.

So here's your chance to change the world. Father's day is coming up. Instead of the hardware store, why not drop into the garden center. Forget the aftershave — give dad a sunflower seed in a pot and challenge him to grow one bigger than his buddy can. Manipulate his machismo!

Friday, May 6, 2016

Enough is Never Enough

I plant far too much stuff in my garden. I can’t help it. I drop in at a garden centre for a couple of plants and I come home with a couple of flats. It’s less expensive if you fill the whole flat, they tell me at the cash register. So back I go to fill the thing, even though I only have two plants in it. Then I find I still have a couple too many so I fill the second flat.

It’s not that I don’t possess a degree of logic and the ability to make calculations in my head that would show it’s costing me more. That’s not the reason. The reason is the season.

In spring I have to plant and plant and plant. I admire people that can enter a garden centre with a list and leave the place with no more items purchased than were on their list. At any other store I can do this, but not where plants are concerned. It must have something to do with survival — the instinct to ensure there’ll be a good crop by fall. Except it’s mostly flowering plants I’m buying.
As for vegetables, it’s a much simpler process. I plant most from seed — beans, peas, lettuce, zucchini. In the veggie garden I worry less about how it looks or whether the colours are coordinated.

I’ve come to the conclusion that planting my garden is like doing a jigsaw puzzle without a picture to go by and, if you’ve ever completed a jigsaw puzzle, you’ll know that the pieces with flowers or foliage are the hardest ones to place. On top of that, I’m always missing pieces or having to force in extra ones.

I typically take an extended walking tour of my property doing just that — trying to find the perfect spot for whatever plant is in my hand. Prefers shade says the tag, but the best shady corner is full. There’s space in another shady spot, but the plant in my hand is too large for that location. There’s only one more option, but the colour is all wrong and it will clash terribly — too bad, I’ll relocate the one that’s beside it. If I can’t find a space, I’ll fill another planter — there’s still room on the deck for a couple more.

Days later I begin again with another trunk load. I know it’s madness, but I love it. Despite the
turmoil and frenzy of planting that I go through each May, it’s the best of times and it only gets better as the garden grows lush and more colourful throughout the season.