Friday, March 31, 2017

Soiled Again


Convoys of dump trucks are hurtling through the streets with increasing frequency. It's topsoil time. It happens each spring when gardeners peek into their neighbour's yard and see stuff growing twice as fast as in their own yard -- or at least it appears that way.
This is actually an optical illusion caused by breathing the fumes of a gas lawnmower mixed with freshly applied lawn chemicals (optical illusions are one of the less serious effects).
"It's has to be my meagre topsoil," they say, "I have to have more topsoil."

There's a commonly held belief that more topsoil will solve all garden problems. Fact is, if you live in a newer home it might be true. I've seen yards that had no topsoil, other than the little bit stuck to the back of the turf. There are two ways to remedy this: Make some or buy some.

Since making topsoil is time consuming (at least half an aeon per inch), the alternative is to buy soil, and the place to buy it is from the grocery store in little plastic bags -- or by the truck load.

Buying by the bag is very expensive if you need any kind of quantity, especially when you factor in the price of the new shocks the car will need after hauling multiple loads. And the trouble with bags is, the soil vanishes as soon as it's dumped onto the flowerbed -- "I just emptied a whole bagful there. Where'd it go?"

This is not an optical illusion. It really happens. Whats more, it may not be soil. What better way to dispose of industrial waste than to have it dispersed in small quantities across the country?

Its much better to order by the yard from a local dealer, preferably a whole dump truck full. It never goes to waste, and you might even get your own soil back.

That's right, your very own soil, the very soil that was stripped off a lovely, flower filled meadow and sold to a soil cartel before your house was even built.

At least youll know where it came from. Of course, it will have passed through a few hands before ending up in the back of the dump truck that's hurtling down your street this very moment -- and you'll still have to pay for it -- the street value, not the field value.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Genuine examples of passionate (mad) gardeners:


I have to stop at every garden centre in town including home improvements stores. I spend winters slobbering over seed catalogues and doodling garden designs on everything in sight, including the kids homework. I rip up every inch of the yard millions of times over till I am happy with the outcome.

All my trees have people names, so friends think I always have friends to talk to when I say "Yesterday, I was speaking to Paul about the dry weather" (Paul is a 70-year-old twisted hazelnut tree!).

Balancing on one crutch, digging holes to plant tomatoes in June.

I will go out to the garden in the morning in my PJs to see how everything is. I stop to pick a weed (or so I think), and I'm still there in my PJs at two in the afternoon, still in my PJs.

I bought four coleus plants eight months ago. I couldn't even spell propagation, and now I have 400 of the little devils!

I don't usually keep secrets from my husband, but I never show him my receipt when returning from the gardening center.

I think moving 300 or so plants from one house to another counts!

The dirt under my nails is layered in strata.  My favorite cologne is eau de earth.  I garden by flashlight.


I never met a plant I didn't want.

I talk to my plants and play classical music for them. 

My husband is crying "No more flowers, no more flowery dishes, no more of flowery wallpaper, " but I can't hear because Im in the winter garden preparing for more flowers!

I pull more weeds in other people's gardens than I do in my own.

I think moving 300 or so plants from one house to another makes me a mad gardener!

Growing . . . growing old, excited, cuttings, seeds, happy, fatter, dirtier, smarter. Gardening madness helps me to grow all these and many more!

Let's just say, my husband often brings out a shop light so that I can continue to see what I'm doing.

Obsessed! Thats what my family says I am.  I am determined to eradicate every blade of grass from our Florida lawn and replace it with plants for birds and butterflies.

I have childhood memories of being in the car with Mom on the way to nurseries, her knuckles whiter on the steering wheel, speedometer clicking ever higher, breath coming faster . . . I dont really think of myself as mad, just that I'm a bit like my mother. 

Getting up at 3 am to widen a border so the family didn't catch me removing yet more lawn. I'm banned from doing that.

There isnt a bare spot in my house. I have plants on every surface tables, chairs, floors, windowsills, husbands bar, everywhere. Theres no lawn left. Ive even moved onto my neighbors property.

I am obsessed . . . can't think about anything much other than my garden. Hard to pass the garden centres without stopping in to see if a plant says "take me home."

I spend more time thinking of and planning where I can use or obtain more plants than I spend on what to have for dinner.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Spring is Bouncing About


Finally, I am able to see part of my garden again. Most of the snow has almost left, revealing a very grubby scene. I cleaned up the patio, tidied the shed a little — just enough to be able to get past the doorway. I even did a little pruning when I tentatively approached my climbing rose, snips in hand. We don’t get along. A snip here and there at a couple of wayward canes and I was soon reminded that full combat gear is essential.

Sure, it looks lovely in full bloom, but winter reveals a bad tempered monster fully intent on crushing the arbor. It’s the Jekyll and Hyde of my garden. I have to cut out old, woody branches, plus dead or damaged ones. I try to remove all the weak, stringy shoots, if I can get at them, and I must shorten the healthy ones that are trying to snag my neighbour’s gazebo. The trick is to bend a few healthy canes horizontally to encourage more blooms.

It’s all worthwhile in the end, but it’s rarely a painless process when every thorn is out for blood. They’re only wannabe thorns as technically they’re prickles — outgrowths of the stem surface rather than true thorns. Call em what you like, they’re still nasty, but I’ll forget that come June when the arbor is a mass of pink blooms.

I have other shrubs that need attention and are far less trouble, but I couldn’t get near them until the snow melted. Most shrubs and trees are best pruned while dormant, especially deciduous ones, and right now they’re about to wake up. A little pruning after leaves sprout won’t cause harm, it’s just easier to see what needs trimming — dead, diseased, and wayward branches. They should be cut out, and if the shrub needs shaping at all, now is the time to do it unless it’s a spring flowering shrub.

Here’s the standard reminder: Do not prune spring flowering shrubs until after they’ve finished blooming or you’ll be removing flower buds and it won’t bloom at all.

It’s easy now to check online for pruning requirements of specific plants, but it’s essential to know the species or variety. For instance, I often hear of problems with hydrangeas not blooming. Sometimes it’s due to environmental conditions, but it might just be because someone with a sharp pair of snips and misplaced enthusiasm has lopped off the flower buds.

Mop head, lacecap, and oakleaf species all bloom on old wood, that is, stems that have been on the plant since the previous summer, so prune immediately after blooming (if neccessary), but no later than the end of July.

Paniculata and Annabelle types set flower buds on new growth and can be pruned in fall, winter, or early spring. The so called endless blooming varieties can be pruned almost anytime.

A similar situation exists for clematis. Again, some bloom on old wood, some on new, and some on both old and new, which means there are three different pruning methods. It’s usually noted on the tag, but if that’s long gone, to correctly identify the type, simply observe how and when the flowers appear. 

Fortunately, pruning at the wrong time won’t kill clematis, not when it’s well established. If it’s an out of control, straggly mess and doesn’t flower at all well, it may be worthwhile to have a fresh start by cutting it back severely. This may result in fewer flowers this year but it will recover.

The bottom line for any pruning is 1. Know the plant. 2. Only prune if necessary. 3. Be absolutely sure because you can’t glue branches back on the tree.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Start em Early

If you wait until young people are teenagers and then introduce them to gardening by telling them to go mow the lawn, it will hardly endear them to the pastime. But, when you plant seeds with a child, you’ll be planting a seed in their head. When the seed in the soil sprouts and begins to grow, the magic of this amazing process will never be forgotten.

This is important, this understanding of how the natural world works. We’ve heard how too many city children can make no connection between milk and a cow, and I dare say there as many who haven’t a clue where the lettuce on a Big Mac comes from — it grows in dirt? — Oh yuck.

Okay, it may have been grown hydroponically, but my point is, we now have a generation that has had little contact with the natural world. There’s practically nothing that can’t now be done online in a virtual world, including gardening. Sure, there are no dirty hands, but a computer program will never replicate the joy in the face of a child seeing their very own seeds sprout — or maybe it will. Maybe it doesn’t matter; maybe it’s too late, but it will be a loss, so start seeds with a child today and give them a gift they’ll never forget, something they may need someday.

It’s easy enough; young plant growers need seeds, a container, and soil. Other essentials are warmth, light, food and water, and a few minutes of attention each day.

Small children (and plenty of adults) need instant gratification; therefore fast germinating seeds are essential for the first time grower. Fast germinating flower seeds include Centaurea (bachelor buttons) 5 to 7 days, Cosmos 7 to 10 days, and Zinnia 5 to 7 days. A favourite of mine is Four-o’clocks (Mirabilis). It’s ideal for small children because the seeds are large and easy to handle. Soak them overnight and they’ll sprout surprisingly quickly.

For a container, almost anything that will hold soil will do providing there’s a hole in the bottom for drainage. Mini greenhouses for starting seeds are available, including whole kits, but using stuff from around the house is fun. The container should be deep enough to hold 50 – 75mm of soil. Too shallow and the soil will dry out quickly. Clear plastic food containers are great because you’ll be able to see the roots growing as well as the plant. Use a second one as a cover and your mini greenhouse is complete.

Fill with a light, good quality potting soil, not garden soil as it may contain weed seeds and unwelcome bugs. Moisten the soil before planting, and then after you’ve planted the seeds, cover them lightly with more potting soil, but not too deep. Too much and the seed won’t have enough stored food to make it to the surface.

Some seeds need light to germinate, while others prefer darkness. This information is usually on the seed packet, but regardless; don’t plunk the container down on a window sill in full sun right away. It will get far to hot and broil everything. The soil has to stay moist but not wet.

When the seeds have sprouted, remove the cover and move to a sunny location beside a window, but avoid a window that faces full south as it may be to hot for the seedlings. If they grow leggy and lean towards the window, it means they need more light (growing under lights avoids these problems). 

It’s essential to check at least once a day to ensure the soil hasn’t dried out, but don’t over water. It’s best to water from the bottom if possible as a permanently moist soil surface can result in fungal problems.

Remember, like seedlings, kids need care and attention, but as they grow they become tougher, tough enough to rake and hoe, to plant and harvest, to pull weeds — and mow lawns. Start them early for future success.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Put Down That Chainsaw

It’s almost spring, and despite the overwhelming urge in gardeners to get out there and do something, anything, the garden will either be snow covered, frozen, or muddy. This does dampen the excitement a tad, but just being able to walk around the backyard is a pleasure.

If I can actually see the ground, I find enjoyment cleaning up the detritus of winter, wondering why junk mail and flyers were so efficiently delivered to all points of the garden. The sign should have at least stopped them at the mailbox — I thought it was politely written.

Spring joy aside, fun in the garden is limited. As an aside here, I’m calling it fun instead of work as that word is so inappropriate. It’s a word that puts people off finding the pleasure in gardening. Meanwhile, I plan to tidy the shed. It’s a make fun project where I prepare the shed for my annual springtime recluttering.

All the pots and trays that I tossed in there during planting last season can now go for recycling, something I should have done a year ago. I’ll likely discover broken pots, and tools without handles that have been on the repair list far too long. I'll probably leave them on the must fix list for just a little while longer. Yes, it’s going to be fun.

Something I should do is sharpen all my pruning tools. I don’t have many as I find a pair of manicure scissors and a chainsaw take care of most pruning requirements. I’m joking, of course, despite the awareness that there is a school of thought that believes a chainsaw alone is sufficient, and the bigger the better.

Chainsaws aside, this is a good time of year to do a little pruning while everything is still dormant, and I do have a few things that need attention. I’m cautious, however, when offering pruning advice to others. Too much snipping and hacking is as bad as pruning nothing until there’s a threat to cut off utilities because the meters can’t be read.

First rule of pruning is, if a tree requires ladders and chainsaws to lop off branches, unless you’ve at least auditioned for Cirque Du Soleil, I highly recommend hiring a professional.

If a tree needs branches removed, don’t cut flush with the main trunk; cut just at the outer edge of the branch collar to allow for healing. If the branch is of any size, make an undercut first to prevent it from stripping the bark back to the trunk as it breaks. Some trees tend to bleed sap heavily in spring. There’s not much that can be done to prevent it, and it is harmless.

Painting with sealants or fashioning tourniquets around limbs isn’t recommended (unless it’s your own limb, chainsaw wielders). If the sap looks unsightly, prune later when it will be hidden by foliage. Evergreens such as spruce and pine are unlikely to need much pruning.

Unless trees are obscuring vision, I don’t like to see the lower branches of evergreens removed. It’s unnatural and the tree can suffer when the sun dries out the soil below. If you must, add mulch to compensate for the lack of shade.

As for shrub pruning, don’t prune ones that flower in spring until after they’ve bloomed or there’ll be no blooms at all. The exception might be if there’s a need to take in hand something that dreams of being a privacy screen for an aircraft hanger. Otherwise, prune only where necessary to remove dead, damaged, or diseased branches, including branches that rub against others.

That should keep us having fun for at least an hour or two. If the wind picks up, I may have more junk mail to attend to.