Sunday, November 27, 2016

Poinsettia Panic

One hundred and seventy three already. That’s how many poinsettias I’ve encountered so far this Christmas season. I have my rules — these have to be live poinsettias and not in a store or greenhouse, unless the store is displaying the plant as part of a seasonal display.

This all started because of my aversion to poinsettias; it was getting worse each year. Don’t believe me? — read previous columns where I’ve complained about the boring ubiquity of these plants, the sheer numbers, the environmental impact of all that wasted potting soil, the energy required to grow and transport them, and don’t even mention the plastic pots that end up at the dump. Grocery stores charging five cents for a plastic bag? I think they missed a huge opportunity here. I say supply your own pot.

Trouble was, I was beginning to be perceived as a Christmas Scrooge, a real grouch bent on spoiling the pleasure of others. I tried not to, but whereas I used to only frown and grumble, I was beginning to openly sneer at these — ahem — plants. Oops, there I go again. I’m sorry. I am trying. Hey, at least I call it the Christmas season and not “holiday” season.

Anyway, the answer was counselling sessions, where I came to realize that unless I was to become completely ostracized by society I would have to learn to like poinsettias. Clearly they’re not going to go away. It was suggested I turn it into a game or challenge and it’s helped considerably. I can now smile when I see a poinsettia, knowing that I’m further along on my quest to set a personal record.

It’s such fun, and it makes Christmas shopping much more pleasurable. I now enter stores full of hope that there’ll be a poinsettia on display — there always is. Naturally, my face lights up immediately, which has the effect of cheering up the frazzled sales assistant, thereby resulting in especially good service.

When I attend a Christmas function, I no longer get annoyed when a whacking great green and red object has been plonked in the middle of the table, completely obscuring my dinner partner, causing us to bob and weave like a couple of boxers as we try to have a conversation. Now I can hardly contain my enthusiasm. I even leave my table and explore the room, anxious to ensure I count them all.

I appear to be the most gregarious, happy person present as I visit other tables, smiling and chatting, saying things like lovely, great, or terrific, even though under my breath, I’m counting away. My obvious enthusiasm then gets me into numerous conversations about how to care for poinsettias.

Here’s what I say: First remove the foil from around the pot or poke holes in the bottom otherwise excess water will 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 to avoid root rot. Avoid exposure to hot or cold drafts as these can cause premature leaf drop. Water well when the surface is dry to the touch. Finally, poinsettia is not poisonous, but I wouldn’t eat it. 175, 176,177 . . .

Friday, July 29, 2016

July Report Card

Except for the extreme heat and lack of rain (heard a fire hydrant whistling for a dog the other day) the old garden isn’t looking too bad.

The Eustoma are amazing, and the Echinacea are providing sterling service. The Lantana, too, has been flowering relentlessly, as has the waterlily 

The portulaca are putting in a lot of effort but the begonias could try harder. I must also congratulate the white cosmos, a new addition that is showing a lot of enthusiasm.

Naturally, I publicly congratulated them all; a bit of positive feedback encourages the performers and, I hope, embarrasses the duds (YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE!).

I’ve certainly done my bit — tender loving care administered without a hint of favoritism.

I wish it would rain. My old oak rain barrel is beginning to look like a picket fence.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

It's Dirty Work

It’s all hard, dirty work, battling insects, diagnosing diseases, dealing with erratic weather, and chasing critters. That’s what gardening must seem like to those without a hint of digital green, so I suppose it’s no surprise when someone tells me they just don’t get it. Like many who feel that way, they like a garden to look nice, in a vague sort of way — mainly tidy, I guess, but that’s as far as it goes.

So what is the attraction? I have a hard time explaining. I try the whole being connected with nature thing, hands in the soil feeling the energy of the earth beneath, yet the thought of dirty hands elicits only a frown.

But what about a beautifully landscaped garden that incorporates all the features that are designed to appeal to one’s sense of aesthetics — the winding pathways, subtly balanced colours, sculpted trees and shrubs mirrored in still pools? Makes it hard to hang out washing, they say, not that many still do.

Consider the fragrances that waft across the patio on a warm summer evening, I might say; people spend a fortune on being fragrant. Aren’t heavenly scents produced in a garden equally attractive? No, I suppose a spray can is more reliable, I have to agree, even if it is filled with questionable chemicals, and yes, for some, a steak sizzling on the barbeque trumps lavender any day.

Then what about the salad that goes with the steak; surely there’s nothing finer than a freshly picked tomato? Red and round, they’re all the same, says the one with dead taste buds.

See what I’m up against? But for those who have discovered gardening and the joy it brings, despite the dirty hands and all the challenges a gardener must face, you know it’s all worthwhile. I know I do, for all the reasons above, and more. I enjoy all aspects, but one in particular always inspires me and that’s the art. Not the art of design, at least not the gardener’s, but that of plants and flowers.

To stop and smell the roses is as relevant as ever, but when I remember to slow down and actually look at things closely, intensely, there’s a whole world of artistry that isn’t immediately apparent, especially if the bifocals are sitting in the house. 

This is when I recall my favourite garden quote by Sally Carrighar, one I should inscribe on the fence as a reminder: “The important thing is to know this flower, look at its colour until its blueness becomes as real as a keynote of music”. To this I’d add a reminder to observe artful intricacy of design.

There are many reasons for the variety of colours and forms taken by flowers and foliage, though I doubt any were originally designed to look appealing to a human perspective — insects mainly — yet we are the beneficiaries of these amazing works of art, many of which inspired the great masters.

Take a closer look at some of the flowers in your garden and you’ll be endlessly fascinated. Take the African daisy, or Osteospermum. It’s a genus of annual plants popular in bedding schemes and there are numerous hybrids and cultivars in a wide range of lively colours. Sun lovers and easy to grow, I have them in flower beds and in containers.

Most are daisy-like, some double, but one in particular always catches my eye thanks to the unique design of its petals. They radiate out in a perfect circle, each one resembling a tiny spoon. I stop, I look, I smile, then I shake my head at this miniature work of art. It’s just one of the reasons to “get” gardening.


Friday, June 24, 2016

Slugfest in the Garden

It’s lurking in your garden — one of the worst killers encountered in horticulture. Not only does it kill; it maims and tortures too. If they weren’t so easily recognized by every gardener in the world, there would be wanted posters for this pest everywhere.

  • It is a voracious eater
  • It has disgusting habits
  • It is sloppy and slimy
  • It has a serious drinking problem
  • And it causes adults to squirm at the very sight of one

Slugs! They are the bane of gardeners everywhere. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t hate them. Even my live and let live philosophy weakens at the sight of a slug. Ugh! If it weren't for my steely nerve, I’d squirm too.

Gardeners are desperate to rid their yards of slugs. I could give you a list a mile long of techniques people have tried for dispatching this marauding mollusk. Sure, some of these tricks work, but only to a point. It seems the more slugs you slaughter, the more there are, no doubt a result of their squalid little sex lives. They bring a whole new meaning to monogamy — if you don't know, don’t ask; it's all part of slug evolution. Evolution? That’s a joke. I’d say slugs are at a bit of a standstill.

However, in yet another attempt to wipe out the slugs in my yard, I thought this year I 'd try a different approach, an approach based on the fact slugs have no friends, other than their nasty sluggy buddies. What with the whole world hating them and trying to kill them (and failing miserably), I wondered if slugs might just react differently if they thought someone, or something, actually liked them, or cared for them.

I had this great idea of using reverse psychology to make them go away. Instead of attacking them every step (and stomp) of the way, I decided to go to great lengths to befriend them, to show them compassion, even love them (okay, I may have had to fake it a bit). My theory was that this would prove devastating to their little sluggy psyches. I intended to kill them with kindness.

I began by setting out some of their favourite food on the patio — marigolds and hosta leaves, and some beer of course, but in a shallow container so they couldn't fall in and drown. I also swept the patio first to get rid of any sharp bits that might snag their little sluggy tummies. It certainly attracted them; they showed up in droves.

They were so confused by these seemingly random acts of kindness, they didn't know whether they were coming or going, which isn't surprising. They're a bit like the VW beetle that way — from a distance it's hard to tell which end is the front.

After a few days I had them exactly where I wanted them, eating out of my hand (ugh). This is when I began playing a few mind games. I thought, we’ll just see who’s well balanced around my yard. Now that I had their confidence I invited them to share a beer and chips with me — SALT AND VINEGAR — my favourites. I figured one chomp and they'd shrivel right up. They drank the beer of course, but they wouldn’t go near the chips. I don’t think they trusted me; they turned up their noses at them.

Noses? I’m not sure if slugs have noses. They do have eyes. I know that because they stick right out on the end when they get excited. One of them was obviously half-drunk and quite belligerent. He tried using his "eyes" to stare me down. Next thing you know we got into a staring contest. After 15 minutes I began to get nervous. I thought, if this sucker wins it’ll be slug anarchy around here. I stomped on it. That kinda put the end to the killing with kindness experiment.

I’m afraid my slugs don’t have a very high opinion of me now. I guess the feeling is mutual. I decided to go back to my old method for dealing with them. Instead of hand feeding, I’m hand picking. I try to dispatch them as humanely as possible — even accidentally. That way I don't feel too guilty. I use my garden clippers to gently pick them up and . . . oops, oops, oops.

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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.