Sunday, April 18, 2021

Getting High With Plants

 I have a problem with the whole concept of trends, the ones that pop up in glossy magazines or become internet memes forecasting what we are all going to follow next. I always feel as though I’m being manipulated in some way to adopt a completely new style by a current day company of Mad Men.

Yet there is another type of trend, the kind that is actually happening, in the moment, simply because people have decided that something is a great thing to do. In the world of plants and gardens, there are two that are prominent, and they are both connected to that unfortunately branded group, millennials, that is, those born in the years roughly spanning 1981 to 1996.

By all reports, this group is into plants and gardens in two specific ways — or both. One is the surge in backyard vegetable gardens, simply because they like to feed their young families with their own healthy produce. Wait, haven’t Generation X and baby boomers been doing that for ages? Yes, but the latter are tapering off a little as they reach the age when bodies are creaking as much as an old wheelbarrow. Many of that group are now moving into apartments and condos, leaving their gardens behind.

It’s in those new high-rises springing up like — okay, weeds — where the other trend is taking place. That is the growing of houseplants, particularly succulents. Succulents are especially popular because they’re easy to take care of. Little do these people know they’re also the gateway to larger, more exotic houseplants.

Next thing you know, these folks will be wanting to grow plants on their terraces and balconies. I can see it now — small shrubs, trees even, with masses of vines climbing and cascading over their multi-story building, just like Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest). Bosco Verticale is a pair of residential towers in Milan, Italy where, instead of cold steel and glass, greenery flows over the whole exterior surface of the buildings

But why not here? Sure, Milan has an enviable climate, but we could start with roof gardens. Now I don’t mean green roofs covered mainly in hardy ground covers. They’re fine and have their purpose, but I’m suggesting more. Roofs on these buildings are wasted space when they could be productive. There’s plenty of room for raised beds where the building occupants can grow their fruits and vegetables, or ornamental plants if they wish, maybe even a cutting garden, and plants for pollinators, of course.

But what about a real garden? This isn’t a new concept, and many have been installed. Some years ago, in London, England, I ate at a restaurant located on the roof of a six-storey building that looked out on a beautifully landscaped garden. The garden held over seventy mature trees, including oak. It even had a stream and a pond complete with wandering flamingos. Known as the Derry and Toms Roof Gardens, it was on the roof of the former department store by that name which opened in 1933, when the gardens were first installed.

That may be ambitious, but why not? We’re losing green space, not only because of suburban sprawl, but in our uptowns and downtowns where the word is intensification. In order for this to take place, many new building high-rises are built on land that previously held houses. Gardens at ground level vanish along with the homes. “Paved paradise” anyone?

There is a need for greenery, for people to be able to stay in touch with the natural world, evidenced by the trends above, and countless studies have shown the benefits. Those millennials may believe they’re adding a living artwork to their condo, but it reveals an inherent need to stay connected. For those older baby-boomers living in the same buildings, there’s nothing many would like better than to again have a garden they can tend.

They’d be lining up to buy or rent, so what about it, planners, architects, builders, and developers? You can do it. Start a trend.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Triple mixed up about soil?

Enthusiasm for gardening is at its highest this month, for life-long gardeners and for those about to stick their trowels and shovels into soil for the very first time. But what soil? It used to be easy: call up someone and get a load of topsoil dumped in the driveway. Then the big yellow bags appeared offering a tidier delivery system for regular soil. Tidy yes, but getting the soil out of the bag with a shovel and into a wheelbarrow does make demands on rarely used body parts.

Most plain topsoil is what was stripped from farmland prior to the building of new homes. It might have started out as good soil, but after being stockpiled, sometimes for years, it becomes compacted. This results in the loss of much of the important microbial life. Adding compost will help restore life to the soil.

Also available in bulk is triple-mix. Recipes vary, but it’s typically a blend of soil, peat moss, and compost from leaf and yard waste, and it’s a good choice for most situations. The only drawback is it tends to settle as the organic matter decomposes and after one season it will need topping up, so maybe allow for this when ordering.

When the opportunity arrived to pick up small, easily transported bags of soil, it became so much easier to tentatively begin gardening by filling a planter or two with bags of soil brought home with the groceries. These small, colourful bags are currently stacked up at grocery or hardware stores like sandbags in anticipation of a flood.

The sight of all these bags must be confusing for the new gardener. I wouldn’t have a clue what to use in my garden or in planters if I was just starting out. Garden soil, three-way mix, black earth, potting soil, and what about the equally attractive bags of compost that buttress those bags of soil? There’s sheep compost, cattle compost, maybe horse or even chicken compost. Whenever I pass by I find myself humming Old MacDonald’s Farm.

Which one to choose? For small raised beds, the three-way mix, much the same as triple mix is fine. With the one labelled simply as garden soil I’d be inclined to add the compost of your choice. Plain garden soil is fine for a garden, but not recommended for planters — a soil-free mix can be better for that purpose.

A soil-free mix is composed mostly of peat moss and perlite and may be labelled as potting soil. If unsure, simply check for the bag that’s soft and feels light compared to ones containing more soggy soil. The latter can be lightened by adding peat moss or coir. Major brands are now adding fertilizer or mycorrhizal fungi to the mix, though not essential.

Black earth can be a puzzle, and I don’t know why it’s called earth and not soil. It would be easy to assume that because it’s black it must be nutrient rich soil; however, that isn’t necessarily so as good soil comes in all colours, like the red soil of Prince Edward Island, for instance. Black soil (or earth) could have come from a swampy area or it could have been darkened by adding leaves. Unlike the composts that are produced and sold, there are no requirements for the analysis of plain soils unless the producer does it voluntarily.

Compost is regulated by the provincial government as well as federally through the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Regulations are set out to ensure heavy metals and other toxic materials etc. are not present. . For more information on compost, see The Compost Council of Canada website.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

The Gruelling Garden

Survival of the fittest. You see that every day in the garden, and not only among plants and bugs. Every spring I barely survive my own enthusiasm. This is the time of year when I'm wishing the snow away and eager to get out into the yard, where the first thing I'll likely do is strain something. I do it every year. At the first opportunity I'm out there poking away at the compost heap to see if it moves. If it does it means the frost is out of it, so I run to the shed and fetch a fork to give it an enthusiastic turning. Then I spend the rest of the week walking funny and cursing the compost heap, when it's really my own fault for letting myself get out of shape.

I do try to stay fit over winter by shovelling snow, but there's only so much to shovel and this year it hardly snowed at all. When this happens I soon start to lose the little bit of muscle tone I have. When there is a lot of snow still around, I'll sometimes haul out Wally, my wheelbarrow, and use him to move it from the pile beside the driveway to the backyard. This way I keep in reasonable shape and at the same time help the garden by extending the snow coverage for my more tender perennials.

Of course, the neighbours aren't too sure what to make of this. Clearing snow off the driveway may be acceptable -- even encouraged, but putting it in a wheelbarrow to move it around the yard does raise a few eyebrows. I know they think I'm nuts, but a fresh lettuce tossed over the fence in summer helps keep down the rumours.

What I don't understand is, the neighbours may roll their eyes at me doing a little honest toil, but they think nothing of someone jogging down the street in the middle of winter wearing pink spandex, shrink-wrapped around too many big Macs. Maybe it's the colour. Maybe I shouldn't wear the yellow ones when I'm getting my workout, even though they match Wally perfectly.

As each year goes by I'm finding harder to stay in shape, so I came up with a great idea. I don't know why I didn't think of it before. This winter I cleaned up the garage and turned it into my very own garden gym. It was easy. I tied a couple of bricks to a shovel, and I hooked up a rake to the wall with a bungee cord. Now I can stand there for hours pretending I'm digging the veggie garden over or raking the lawn.

That's not all. I developed a whole range of exercises to simulate yard work. One of the harder jobs in the yard is pushing a wheelbarrow. I wanted to bring Wally in to wheel around the garage but there isn't enough room. I solved that by substituting a couple of pails for Wally and I carry them back and forth instead. When I get the hang of it I'll put something in the pails instead of pretending Wally's empty.

Another exercise I discovered quite by chance. I was in the gym doing some bungee raking, and hadn't quite got the hang of it. I had the rake pulled to the limit when it slipped out of my hand and boinged around the garage. Dangerous? I'll say. It slapped me in the head a couple of times before raking everything off the shelf where I store all my odds and ends. Two hours of simulated weeding as I cleaned them up was easily as effective, and exciting, as the real thing.

Yes, the garden gym works great; however, being cooped up in the garage without the distractions of nature I've discovered a whole new perspective on what I'm actually doing to myself out there in the yard every spring. After a few weeks of working out I've come to realize how much stress I actually put my poor body through.

No wonder it's always grumbling. I now believe that gardening is just as grueling as any sport. Why, maybe gardening should be in the Olympics. That would be so thrilling. Can you imagine the spine-tingling tension of a topiary competition, or the excitement of competitive weeding? And let's not forget the sheer titillation of questionable garden clothing.

But then I suppose there'd be the usual scandal over the use of illegal growth hormones (that will be a biggie, I'm sure), and we'd have to watch those hokey interviews with the medalists: "I owe it all to my pony, Jenny, for providing me with what it takes to grow healthy plants." Meanwhile the medalists will all be sitting there holding shovels with trademarks showing and wearing shrink-wrapped spandex with the logos of huge fertilizer companies plastered over them.

Maybe not. Maybe I'll skip today's workout and give the compost heap a poke instead -- ooh, ow.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Gardens and Gardeners are Thawing Out

Robins are making an reluctant appearance and squirrels are active, so it must be Spring. But it’s a slow process in the garden. Spring doesn’t so much begin with warm sunny days; it begins in the dark, deep in the soil as the ground thaws

Sunshine may warm the top few inches of soil, enough for snow drops and crocuses, but the frost recedes more as the residual heat from the earth pushes upwards. Not until the soil reaches an optimal temperature do the roots wake up and begin feeding sap upwards. When the air is warm enough, it continues to flow, buds swell, leaves sprout and spring really arrives. And that will be another week or so.

Gardeners however, have been thawed out for some time and can’t wait to act on their plans and dreams. For many, it will be their first venture into the world of gardening, whether it’s a few containers on a deck, a flower bed, or a raised bed for vegetables.

That concept has taken off, especially among young people eager to grow fresh veggies in the backyard. Depending on soil conditions gardeners have always raised their beds above surrounding soil levels. It’s done to ensure good drainage, or simply because there isn’t sufficient existing soil in the typical backyard. Often there’s only a few inches provided to sustain grass, and not without copious amounts of water and annual fertilizing.

By raising and enclosing the bed it becomes in effect a large planter, suitable for a small backyard where space is at a premium. These are usually built with lumber, although other materials can be used. Cedar, redwood or cypress are good, though pricey choices — it’s a long payback term for a few tomatoes and carrots. Low grade lumber won’t last long before deteriorating but it can be okay if it’s only going to be in use for a limited time.

Pressure treated lumber is no longer treated with arsenic as it used to be, and from what I’ve been able to determine there are no issues with the copper compounds that are currently used,
however, I’d still be inclined to line the wood with polyethylene film. Cement blocks or old logs, though not as tidy, will also do the trick.

The bed can be any length, but a metre and a half wide (four feet) allows for easy access without having to step in. This avoids compacting the soil as everything is within easy reach for planting, weeding, or harvesting. As for depth, a minimum of 20 centimeters (eight inches) is fine, although the bed can be built much higher if the old back is getting creaky.

As for soil, regular top soil can be suitable depending on the source and consistency. Sandy soil drains quickly and has fewer nutrients while clay soil is richer and holds moisture longer, but it’s heavy and compacts easily. Both these soil types are improved by adding organic matter such as manure, compost, or leaves.

A popular alternative is triple mix. There isn’t a standard composition, but it’s typically a friable blend of regular soil, peat moss, and other organic matter. As the organic matter breaks down, the soil will settle and eventually need topping up.

Contained raised beds do tend to dry out faster than a regular bed, so watch for that. Adding mulch will save on water and reduce the need for weeding. One big advantage often touted is that the soil warms up faster in spring, allowing for an earlier start, however, keep in mind that it will cool off just as fast in fall.

Meanwhile gardeners, stay cool, real Spring will soon arrive.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Seed starting for beginners

Can’t wait! Just can’t wait, and I know I’m not alone. My recently arrived seeds are sitting in the refrigerator and I can’t wait to start them. Sure it’s too early for most seeds, but the worst thing that can happen is the plants will take over the house before I’m able to plant them outside . . .

The answer of course is to read the instructions on the seed packets and wait. When it says start four weeks before my last frost (24th of May, more or less) it means I shouldn’t start them until the 24th of April — two whole months away. Here are a few tips and reminders.

Propagation Containers:

Anything that can hold a couple of inches of soil and has drainage holes in the bottom will do. For individual containers, use coffee cups — plastic or Styrofoam are fine, and yogurt cups are great too

No need to be fussy about containers as long as they’re clean and have drainage holes in the bottom. It’s also a good idea to poke or slice a few holes in the sides too. It allows for better drainage and lets oxygen get to the roots, which is very important. If you’re recycling last year’s containers, be sure to wash them well to prevent the spread of any fungal diseases.

All containers will need a plastic cover to keep up the humidity level. However, the cover should not be totally airtight and is best removed as soon as germination occurs. If you can match a plastic cake cover up with a pot the same size you’ll have the perfect propagation chambers, or you can slip a large one over a number of individual pots. Plastic stretch-wrap over the pots will also do the trick, but poke a couple of holes in it. Clear plastic produce containers work well.

Soil Mix:

A soil-free mix is an excellent medium for starting seeds, especially if you’re a beginner. These mixes are usually made up of peat moss with vermiculite and perlite added. Regular potting soil is a little too heavy and if not reasonably sterile (potting soil is not actually sterilized) it will allow the dreaded damping off fungi to develop. This is what causes seedlings to keel over and die for no apparent reason. There is a reason: they’ve been attacked at the base of their stalks right at the soil surface. Avoid using garden soil for this same reason.

Once the seedlings begin to grow well, some liquid fertilizer will be necessary, especially with the soil-free mixes, but check the instructions and use at half strength or less. Too strong and there’s a chance the little guys will be burned.


It’s essential for plant growth, but not for starting all seeds. The seeds of calendula, gazania, delphinium, pansy, verbena, and vinca are typical of those that prefer to be left in the dark until they germinate, but check daily because they will need light as soon as they do pop up. A simple LED grow light fixture suspended about 100cm or so above the seed trays is a perfect light source. Use a timer so that the lights are on for around fourteen hours each day. If you intend growing a large number of seedlings, use a small fan to provide gentle air circulation.

Starting seeds on a window sill is fine, but never in full sun. A container with a clear plastic cover placed in full sun will get hot enough to poach an egg. A south facing window with sheer curtains is as good as you can get.

If seedlings begin to look like giraffes on stilts it means they’re not receiving enough light; likewise if they begin clawing at the window. Rotating the pots will straighten them up. If your windows are poorly located for good light, don’t give up, focus on growing shade loving plants such as impatience.

Don’t forget to move seed trays away from windows in the evening as it will get too cold there. Correct temperature is very important for seed germination. Most seeds, but not all, germinate best at a steady temperature of around 20 - 24C. After germination, the temperature lower.


Keep the growing medium for seeds and seedlings moist but not wet. Watering from the bottom up will cut down the risk of damping off disease. Use room temperature water and check at least once daily, because seeds will not germinate if the soil is allowed to dry completely.


Another reason seeds don’t germinate is because they’re planted too deeply. In fact, some seeds need only be scattered on the surface. A tiny seed, germinating too far down, will use up its food store before it ever reaches the light where it can begin making its own food through the process of photosynthesis. Follow the instructions on the seed packet closely. If there are none, or you’ve lost the packet, plant at varying depths as deep as two to four times the size of the seed. This will ensure a degree of success.

There’s lots more to starting seeds, but if you follow these basic instructions you’ll be successful, maybe even too successful. Now, what you should do is clip and save this article until it’s the correct time to start seeds — unless you can’t wait. But just remember, the house can get pretty steamy when it’s brimming with enough tomato plants to attract Campbell’s attention.