Friday, April 29, 2016

Garden work work work work work work (Rihanna)

Watching my backyard slowly reappear over the last week or two has been like watching a photograph develop. It’s hardly poster quality, but at least I can walk down the garden path again. Not much is happening out there yet, but it won’t be long, and I’m raring to go, along with all the other gardeners revving their engines.

Except, what if you’re feeling overwhelmed at the sight of a naked yard that reminds you of your worst vacation photo. As long as the place was covered in snow it was easy to avoid, but now there it is, an empty lot covered in scruffy, boring grass, glaring at you. It won’t go away. It will demand attention until winter returns, but what will it provide in return? — Not much more than another record breaking water bill.

You know that’s not what you want; you want a beautifully landscaped yard, always did, but never got around to it. Where to start, what plants to purchase, where to place them? Maybe you attended one of the garden shows and came home filled with inspiration, but you still feel intimidated by the whole process. 

If only you could wave a magic wand, or at least a magic credit card, it would all be taken care of. But there’s no fun in that, and besides, landscaping isn’t something that has to be completed overnight. The transformation might be exciting, but think of your poor mail carrier getting lost in unfamiliar territory.

No, take a deep breath, relax, and understand that landscaping your yard can be a slow, enjoyable process. This is an opportunity to discover your creative nature, and don’t ever think you don’t have one. Constructing an attractive garden may well surprise you.


Will there be work? — Yes, lots, but garden work is not the same kind of work as the mind numbing, soul destroying, and stress inducing toil that can fill your day from nine to five. In fact, it’s the complete antidote to that kind of work; it’s exercise in disguise. Garden work can invigorate and restore the body, and also the soul. 

In the words of the Canadian Horticultural Therapy Association, horticultural therapy improves the social, spiritual, physical, and emotional well-being of individuals who participate in it -- that is, working in a garden. 

So what’s stopping you? Oh yes, a plan. It’s probably a good idea to have a plan, otherwise you may make mistakes, and that will mean more work, and then you'll be stuck with a toned and perfect body and a blissful smile. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

Earth Day Everyday

Did someone say Earth Day? With all the media attention on budgets, possible elections and of course, the Stanley cup, Earth Day can easily be sidelined, so I’m doing my bit for Earth Day by mentioning Earth Day.

I try to approach every day as Earth Day around my garden. It isn’t hard as I’ve always avoided using pesticides and herbicides, but now that pesticides are largely banned, we’re all doing our bit, like it or not, and the world hasn’t ended.

Sure, it’s more of a challenge to produce a perfect weed free lawn, but that’s never been my goal. I’ve preferred to plant plants and shrubs as they’re much more interesting. At least newer environmentally friendly products are being marketed. Iron or vinegar based herbicides are available, and although they may not be as effective on lawns as the chemical products that were banned, they do help, and they work quite well on weeds that grow in patios and driveways. Meanwhile, I’ll continue pulling weeds by hand which isn’t difficult as I don’t have many, thanks to mulching every bit of bare soil in sight, including that in containers.

Dealing with insects in a garden has always been a challenge, but I never believed blanket spraying with insecticides was the answer. Of course, I do get insect problems. The red lily beetle ravished my lilies terribly. What an eyesore. I solved it by giving up on lilies for a couple of years. I’ve planted a few new bulbs this year to see if I’ve fooled the beetles into abandoning my garden.

Of all the insects in a garden, only a minority are a problem. Most others are beneficial. In fact, killing off the beneficial insects only compounds the problem as an unbalance is created. In nature, no one species gets the upper hand for long. They all have their enemies and it’s just a matter of time before one shows up. It’s not only other insects that provide control. Birds do their bit, too, and there’s no finer sight than a flock of starlings cleaning out the grubs in a lawn. Is it me, or are there a lot more birds around now?

Fortunately, apart from plagues of locust, most insect pests feed on specific plants, so don’t harm everything. I grow a wide range of plants in my garden and it lessens apparent damage. If just one type of plant is affected, there’s always another that looks just fine. It also helps somewhat by confusing insects as they have to figure out where a plant is in my garden before they can eat it. Consequently, the garden usually looks fine overall.

Weeds and insects have always been the bane of the gardener and always will be. Making adjustments, growing different varieties, and working with nature to maintain the balance are ways to garden in an earth friendly way. If all else fails, leave off the bifocals or reading glasses when in the garden and take five steps backwards. Weeds and insect damage will vanish like magic.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Spring Bounced In

Even though the snow dump on the patio was fighting a meltdown and the lawn a squishy, soggy mess, the glorious weather last weekend made it a joy to rediscover my garden. Although the snow cover stayed longer than it normally does, it didn’t bother the plants below. The crocuses must have been bursting to bloom because as soon as the snow vanished, they flowered. A hellebore, which usually suffers from late winter weather, benefited from the deep snow drift that covered it all winter, is thinking of flowering.

Green shoots of other plants are poking up, many of which are familiar as they’re old timers, but I’m afraid I’m at a loss to identify others until they give me more clues, like leaves, or even flowers. It’s partly because I planted new stuff last fall and moved a few things around, but I do tend to forget where I plant things. In fact, I discovered a plant tag thrust aside by a clump of crocus. I planted something new there last fall not realizing there were crocus below.

I do keep notes and photographs taken at different times throughout the growing season to help keep track of what is where, but when I’m in the garden I’m reluctant to return indoors. Instead, I make a mental note to check it out later, except those mental notes tend to get misplaced when I’m having so much fun puttering about on a beautiful spring day.

And besides, it’s been almost half a year since I last worked in the garden, around the middle of November when I crammed everything into the shed. Is it any wonder I might have forgotten a few things? By the time summer rolls around, I’ll have everything sorted out.

Right now, there are plenty of things to keep me busy. I’ve cut back all my ornamental grasses. It was quite a crop, almost too much for the compost pile. They’re slow to break down unless they’re chopped up, so I save some of those long clumps of stalks to use as mulch between the rows in a vegetable garden. I’m cutting back the stalks of perennials to make way for new growth and cleaning up the mushy leaves of my hostas. It’s not a job for the squeamish as you never know what might be lurking beneath, a slug or two most likely.

Toss the leaves on the compost pile then scuff up the soil a little to expose any slug eggs to spring frosts. This will finish them off before they get chance to start munching.  This is also the time of year, just at the moment when leaf tips are showing a little green, to spray a dormant oil mix on any shrubs or trees that are particularly susceptible to insect damage or fungal diseases. I’ve found it useful in controlling black spot on roses. I spray the soil lightly around the roses too.

As for my one climbing rose, it does need attention. The dead wood and stringy branches with rose hips need to be removed, and I really need to try and bend some of the younger canes horizontally to encourage more blooms. It’s always a challenge, and I rarely escape unscathed, but at this time of year, anything job in the garden is fun. 

Friday, April 8, 2016

Critters in the Garden?

You may be expecting to read tree planting tips or information on new plants today, but when unusual events take place, it’s news, even in the gardening world. This news isn't new, but tracks in the snow this morning brought to mind an event that took place a year or so ago.

It happened one morning as I was about to sit down with a cup of coffee. I happened to glance through the window that looks over the back yard when, from the corner of my bleary eye, I briefly saw a large brown object, little more than a shadow, retreating behind the cedar at the end of the pond. I know some of you may be thinking water buffalo, but it wasn’t quite that large. I grabbed my camera, which invariably means the extra time it takes guarantees the subject will be gone before I make it out the door. In this case, it hadn’t. Something was still lurking behind the cedar.

I stealthily approached, camera in one hand, thinking I should probably have a stick in the other since I had no idea if it was rabid groundhog, an ornery raccoon, or just another rabbit. Regardless, it stealthily managed to stay one cedar width ahead of me.

I reversed direction. It reversed direction. Thinks it’s smart, I thought. Luckily, I’ve played this game around the dining room table with my dog, and even though she always wins, I’ve become pretty adept at the fake reverse trick. I pulled my patent double reverse and gotcha!

We met face to face between the cedar and the fence. It wasn’t a furry animal after all. It was a bird, a huge bird — it was wild turkey. I had a wild turkey in my garden! At this point I’m not sure who was the more surprised — the turkey or me. We stared each other down for only a moment before the turkey’s nerve failed. It panicked and hopped over the fence into the neighbour’s yard, where it calmly began eating the grass.

From there it worked its way out front, across the front yard and back to my front door. I know turkeys aren’t the brightest creature, and it did cross my mind that it might have arrived early for Thanksgiving dinner, but then, using the path as a runway, it took off. Last I saw of it, it was heading south.

These birds have thrived since they were reintroduced to the area a few years ago, but isn’t a wild turkey supposed to stay in the wild? I could understand this one visiting if I lived in the country, or even on the edge of the city, but I wouldn’t have expected a turkey to flop down into an urban garden. What’s next — a kangaroo? My garden sure is an interesting place.

Friday, April 1, 2016

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.