Your browser is not supported

Your browser is too old. To use this website, please use Chrome or Firefox.

Garden with a Winner!™

Clematis Spring Care


Clematis are confusing to many, so don’t feel alone! This family of plants has been divided into three groups according to their bloom sequence which then affects their pruning sequence. Confused yet? The long and the short of it is that you need to know when the plant(s) that you have purchased are expected to bloom, spring, summer or fall. I will start with Category III Clematis as they require attention in the early- mid spring. These are the late season bloomers, producing flowers on the current year’s growth, generally in August-September. Clematis viticella is the binomial given to this gang which boasts a number of very attractive late season bloomers. Look for the varieties Ernest Markham, Pink Fantasy and Etoile Violette. It is this category that require essential pruning in the spring, cutting all the old foliage and branching back to soil level in order to host new wood and consequently abundant flowers. Failing to prune these plants is a map for disaster as they will simply produce a tangled mess with few to no flowers.
Category II Clematis are perhaps the more visual and well-known varieties of the family clan. They typically throw large and very showy blooms in the spring or early summer on last year’s growth. You will need to be very careful here as Clematis stems are quite brittle and break very easily. Early spring pruning, like March or so, is important as you will remove weaker and broken or damaged growth. The remaining growth can be reduced to the highest and fattest bud(s), once they have flowered, you are wise to cut the vine back to a pair of buds about ½ way down the stalk. This will encourage strong, new growth that should re-bloom in late summer.
How are you doing so far?
Category I Clematis are the survivors from last year with a scrambled bunch of stems bursting into flower very early in the spring, often the first to show colour. This category is perhaps the

Vancouver™ Daybreak

easiest to maintain, I generally say, “just leave them alone” it doesn’t get much easier than that. What is recommended with Category I Clematis is to simply tidy the plants after flowering has finished. Look for these clematis varieties: Lincoln Star, Multiblue, Vancouver™ Daybreak and Mystic Gem. All of these have more downward facing blossoms and have very dense foliage. I enjoy this category as it withstands the rigours of an unnaturally cold climate and blesses me with blossoms year upon year.

Wisteria Spring Care

Wisteria is an old school, rather British favourite climber/scrambler for climates in Canada that are not subject to severe winters. Coastal BC as well as Southern Ontario along with the milder regions of Atlantic Canada, can enjoy the profusion of blooms that this reliable vine can provide. Chinese Wisteria is by far the more common to be found in garden centres and nurseries across the country, there are many others, but for the sake of time, I will focus on this one. Spring pruning is strongly encouraged as the foliage will not be formed so that the overall structure of the plant is apparent. As Wisteria could literally take over the entire neighbourhood, all will be thankful that you pruned your specimen severely this spring. You will be able to see the buds swelling for flowers as well as for simply vine growth. The vine growth is what you prune hard, with very sharp secateurs, removing up to 2/3 of the entire branch. As drastic as this may seem, it is the only way to keep this leviathan vine in shape.
Another good tip is if you are just selecting a location for your Wisteria, consider locating the specimen where spring flowering shrubs are not too close by. My reasoning is simple; most spring blooming shrubs are fertilized early on in the season to promote lush growth and flowers. Wisteria are greedy things and will gobble up the nutrients rapidly. The results are disastrous as the vine growth, which is ‘whippy’ at the best of times, rivals Hollywood man eating plants descriptors. Best to find a spot where you may just be planting annuals or even better, so that the Wisteria is all alone.
Established plants will require a spring as well as a summer pruning to keep the specimen in check. New or yet to be established plants are a bit more forgiving as you may want the long, tendril-like growth to establish a structural foundation perhaps climbing a sturdy arbour. Once you can see the flower buds swelling, then you are pretty sure that it’s ok to prune. Actually, you really can’t hurt a Wisteria from over or incorrectly pruning it, you may however, jeopardize the bloom.
Older, mature and stubborn to bloom Wisteria can be rather aggressively coerced into bloom by quasi-girdling the main trunk. I just made that term up today, but it simply means cutting the main trunk’s bark with a sharp knife almost all the way around the circumference. This will shock the plant intensely and often will force the specimen into flower.

Deciduous Azalea

New gardeners and even some of us who have been growing for many years, find confusion when it comes to Azaleas and Rhododendrons. To add to the stew, there are deciduous varieties as well as evergreen, so not to muddle things up, I will refer to deciduous azaleas in this article. Simply said, these plants do not hold their foliage over the winter and as such, are much hardier than many of their cousins. Breeding began in the late 50’s in Minnesota attempting to develop a colourful Azalea that could withstand the severe winters of the northern mid-west. Over time a new series of “Northern Lights” came into being, boasting hardiness withstanding -34C. Count me in was my reaction at that time, but now more breeding has occurred and many new varieties are seeping into the market for gardeners in the ice and snow like me.

Many of the offerings that hit the shelves in the 80’s carry the name ‘Lights’ along with a colour appellation like ‘Lilac Lights’ or ‘Orchid Lights’. The newest of the collections are said to be hardy to -40C, wow, they might survive in Winnipeg, Saskatoon and further afield.

These specimens are container grown in an acidic soil medium, so understand that they need an acid soil to thrive. Amend with organic matter, compost, manures- your choice, but they must have a rich acid base. I prefer to have the plants clustered to provide the best results with bloom and also, preparing a growing bed that is acidic makes sense to me as opposed to each individual plant hole. The colour range is amazing with new additions each year, predominantly in the soft pastels with the occasional brilliant burst of red or deep orange. ‘Spicy Lights’ is a dandy variety as it has good bloom size in pink with orange-ish blush set on a shrub that can reach 2M. Many of the offerings can reach decent heights if well tended and of an age. Recently the large box stores that carry garden centre supplies also carry the deciduous Azaleas. Check carefully when making selections as many of these stores are frantic in the early spring with staff that are pulled in many directions. Water is critical for the survival of these specimens, so take note and select your plants accordingly. Family run garden centres generally have trained staff who know their plants and care for them, so if you are fortunate enough to have such a source, consider them. Many have a sweet scent to them which is pleasant for us but also offers nourishment and encouragement for our early pollinators. A good rule might be to never just have one.

Winter Aconite (Eranthis hyemalis)

This burst of colour, spring bloomer is actually a tuberous rooted perennial, often called erroneously a bulb. There is very little to hold this character back from forcing her flowers out, often through the snow! Indeed one of the very first of the blooms to adorn the spring garden. At one time, this plant was very common across Europe and into the Mediterranean regions, from where its name originates. Er from the Greek for Spring and Anthos from the same language for flower. Unlike many spring tubers and bulbs, Winter Aconite can tolerate more moisture but not sopping wet feet, therefore adequate drainage is recommended. The foliage is glossy, deep verdant green and held almost like a collar around the vibrant yellow blossoms, reminiscent of a very large buttercup. In general, the plants tend to clump and are not very tall, you may see the mahogany reddish stems if you look closely. The soil conditions should be rich in humus such as leaf mold or composts, emulating a woodland soil if you wish. They look wonderful in a woodland garden along with Hellebores, minor spring bulbs such as Galanthus, Squill and Crocus. If they are happy where you have planted them, they will multiply by producing little bulbils, which can be removed and planted elsewhere if you choose.

There may be confusion with a toxic plant Aconitum or commonly called Monkshood, Winter Aconite is not related and is not the least toxic. One may find them addictive however, as they perform flawlessly once established and open each day with a brilliant sunny yellow hello to spring.

As with many of the earlier blooming plants, in particular those planted in a woodland garden, slugs can be a nuisance. It would seem that everybody has a secret formula for dissuading slugs from visiting the garden, I yet have to find a consistent deterrent. Be aware and perhaps cultivate lightly around the plants once the soil has warmed. Slugs may have laid eggs in the vicinity and this will disturb them and possibly dehydrate them if they are exposed. Other than that, I would keep the beer for the gardener and not waste it on the slugs. Enjoy!

Colour and Texture

Colour is a very important concept when considering the garden design. Whether you are rearranging an existing landscape, bed or container or starting from scratch with a new one two fundamentals in my mind are texture and colour. In our household one of us is very fond of colour and lots of it while the other is a bit of a texture freak and can live without too much colour. Compromise is clearly the name of the game! Colour is of course such an individual thing with everyone having favourites and dislikes, texture on the other hand is somewhat less constructed. There are a few considerations when deciding on colour and placement in the landscape, but they are of course not hard and fast rules. Basically, lighter colours if placed in the background of a design tend to draw the eye into the landscape, giving the effect of depth. Additionally, single placed light colours in a design can act like punctuation marks or parenthesis so as to separate lines or break up a monotone of colour. Alternatively, lighter colours placed near the foreground of a design will define an area almost like a ribbon. Darker colours can add mystery as well as act as a contrast to vibrantly light colours. Placing dark colours in a foreground to my eye at least, will blunt or make too harsh a statement for the design. Blending offers a compromise and with the use of different hues of darker colour, can give a very interesting and sophisticated overall look.

One of the most difficult colours for me to work with is orange followed by red. It’s not that I dislike these colours, they are just too harsh for my style of garden; I much prefer to meddle in blues, purples and the pink to rose tones. The palette offered within these tones I find much easier to blend with and the resulting look is soft and often billowy. This is where texture comes into play.

In landscapes/gardens where the viewer can get close to the plants, texture rules in my books. My signature designs tend to have very organic curves, smaller planting spaces and lots of nooks and crannies, there isn’t a straight line in sight! This overall affect is very soft and inviting to the viewer and also easier for me to maintain and reach into the beds. The textured foliage that I rely on either have large, coarse leaves like my Transylvanian Rhubarb and many hosta or deeply serrated foliage like so many Heuchera. The added advantage of Heuchera is their massive palette of colour and pattern along with great leaf texture. Contorted Hazelnut offers a very cool bit of texture in the branch formation of course, but also the foliage. Underplanted with Cranesbill geranium which forms a thick mat plays well with the various spring bulbs that pop up through.

All in all, colour and texture should lead the charge when designing a space with an underscore regarding hardiness of your region. Have a blast dreaming about your next project.


What to do with the Christmas tree . . .

The days are actually getting longer with those precious few moments more of sun becoming noticeable. I for one am thrilled to see the sun spending more time in the sky as I reside in one of the colder parts of Canada, so the sun is a psychological boost if nothing else. Each year at this time, I have an ever-growing list of tasks, chores and things that I want to accomplish once the weather turns reasonable. However, first things first, what to do with this Christmas tree that is dropping needles as if it was shedding. Sure, I have a plastic tree bag that will help with the transport to the back yard, but really, there are needles everywhere. In that I didn’t have a living Christmas tree, it’s just not practical in our climate and with our lifestyle, the Balsam Fir that I purchased from the Boy Scouts is going to become a bird tree in the garden. Many of the Nuthatches and smaller birds that stay around to enjoy winter need some respite from the winds and cold. The density of my tree will provide them with lots of places to snuggle into January and through February, perhaps even into March. The needles will freeze onto the branches so that the foliage, what’s left of it, will remain intact until warm weather.

Our city, as with most in Canada, offer a service to chip these trees into a mulch that can be picked up in the spring. One municipal program many years ago that I instituted was called Tinsel Mulch© and to my knowledge is still called the same and providing excellent results. My bird house tree will eventually make its way into the compost once I take my loppers to it and dismantle it into pieces that can be managed. By the time that happens our bird families will have long since moved on. If you are having your tree chipped and plan to use the mulch, just be aware that the pH of the mulch is somewhat acidic, not overwhelmingly so, but still worthy of comment. Remember when using mulch that only a couple of inches is necessary to achieve results, too much can be detrimental. Now what to do with all these needles? Hmmm, maybe just in my compost will be fine.

Winter Protection

The winter months in Canada can be cruel and unusual punishment with cold temperatures, dry air outside and even worse inside and typically higher winds. The Prairie Provinces are at least blessed with tremendously sun shiny days, even though the temperatures rival those on Mars. Just imagine how difficult it must be for the plants in your landscapes to tolerate all this abuse. Indeed they do and they, for the most part, do very well with numerous adaptations. The difficulties arise however, when gardeners such as myself, install plants from winter hardy zones well and beyond what my climate will tolerate, but we do try, don’t we? Milder climates such as Southern Ontario and many regions of British Columbia are not entirely exempt from the tortures of winter. Beginning with evergreen shrubs, in Southern and Central Ontario where temperatures fluctuate as does the amount of sunshine. Many gardeners will provide protection using burlap, wrapped around the shrub and secured with twine. This is an excellent approach however, understand the insulator value of burlap is zero, that is not why it is used. Imagine you wearing an unlined, burlap jacket! The purpose of the burlap is a sunscreen, and as such, it should be installed so that the entire shrub is covered, wherever possible. Consider that the plant will be in a dormant stage, its roots solidly frozen into the soil with no chance of absorbing water until thaw. The sun’s intensity will increase from February through March triggering the dormant foliage to start functioning, requiring moisture. Beep, beep, beep…the soil is still frozen! The poor plant, if not protected from the sun’s rays, will transpire or lose moisture and the foliage will brown or burn. The lesson here is to leave the fabric protection on your evergreen shrubs until the soil is not frozen and the plant can absorb the moisture. Additionally, there are commercially available anti-desiccants that may be applied to the foliage to reduce transpiration. Wilt-Pruf is perhaps the best known product. In time, the product deteriorates, typically when the sun is stronger, allowing the foliage to function properly. Under no circumstances use plastic! Plastic protection is oxymoronic at best as you would actually be killing your evergreen. Plastic does not breathe and in fact it will magnify the sun’s rays, like in a greenhouse. The ambient temperature around your plant will sky rocket, throwing your evergreen into active growth. Beep, beep, beep…. The soil is still frozen! You are cooking your shrub, so just DON’T use plastic.

Hybrid Tea roses require some winter protection in most regions of the country. Many gardeners would have hilled their plants so as to cover the bud union, or the knuckle-like growth at soil level. In very cold regions of the country, the plants are often completely covered with soil and dry leaves contained in a collar fabricated from a cardboard box or similar. Some retail outlets will offer styrofoam covers, resembling a large pot. I am not a fan of this method unless the bottom/top of the container is sliced off and then the remaining portion used as a collar to be filled with soil. Realize that any stems of the roses that are not covered will succumb to old man winter, so protect the stalks that you want to keep. Larger, non-hardy roses can actually be bent down to soil level and buried entirely to survive the onslaught of winter.

Finally, the thicker the blanket of snow, the better as it provides a layer of insulation for all the plants in the garden. Caution however if you apply a salt-based ice melting product. Should you shovel this polluted snow onto the beds, damage will occur. Consider using a product such as the ones made from sugar beets, much more environmentally appropriate and non-toxic to your lawns, perennials and shrubs. Happy shovelling!


There can be much more to the colder months in Canada than just shovelling snow! As a person who is not terribly fond of snow, I attempt to spruce up the front of my home with more than the standard fare of snowbanks. I have heard that my artistic endeavours in urns, pots and various containers is referred to as ‘Nature Scaping’. In fact, all that I really do is a foil so that I don’t have to spend too much time shovelling snow. Recently I have gleaned a few very cool ideas from neighbours and yes, I must admit from some of the DIY feeds online. This year I plan to spruce up my window boxes with ice candles. These are so simple to make, in particular when you live in a frigid part of Canada. My design will be circular as I have a number of ice cream plastic containers just the perfect size. What I plan to do is use a metal soup can, cut the bottom out and of course, wash it thoroughly. Place the metal can in the ice cream bucket and fill the outer portion with warm water. You may have to weigh the can down with some heavier object so that it won’t float around. Place the water filled container outside to freeze solid, generally overnight is sufficient. Once frozen, pour some hot water into the metal container to loosen it from the ice and then remove it.  The remaining cavity is where you will place a tea light or similar candle; voila, you have an ice candle. You can of course be as creative as you wish adding cedar snippets, cranberries or whatever suits your fancy into the water before you set it to freeze. My collection of red and green ice candles will sit in my window boxes, 3-5 in each with some cedar and pine boughs snuggled around them making a delightful show. The candles are lit each evening and replaced the next day or alternatively, battery powered twinkle lights woven around the base makes a spectacular display.

Now for the large terra cotta planters and pots that festoon my yard (all looking rather sad with nothing in them). My containers are filled with an artificial soil mix which is easier to thaw and work than heavier counterparts. Pouring a kettle full of boiling water into the planter will loosen the mix sufficiently to allow me to start my nature-scaping arrangement. First off, the overall structure of the design starts with red twig dogwood as it is colourful and I have lots of plants that require reduction. You may consider sharpening the ends using your secateurs or a sharp knife to allow for easier insertion. Use your imagination and attempt to keep the arrangement height within scale of the container. Other branches and/or twigs such as white birch, yellow dogwood and curly willow will add a dramatic touch to your creation. Unfortunately, I do not have magnolia in my garden so I purchase a few branches at the garden centre; the cocoa coloured undersides of the foliage and glossy green tops look super. The interior of the creation can be filled with pine, spruce, fir, cedar or any evergreen foliage that you may have in the landscape. Alternatively, all retail outlets in the green industry will have swags of foliage for sale. Usually, within the same region of the store there will be a selection of cones, usually sugar pine, which are huge and very decorative in the nature-scape. You may have access to copious supplies of your own cones so gather them up and if necessary, hot glue a cluster together to fit in scale with your design. Many folks like to add colourful festive decoration and often ribbon bows, this is entirely up to you as it’s your creation, just remember to use outdoor ribbon and weather resistant decorations.

Once your creation meets with your approval, the mix should be left to freeze solid therefore holding the arrangement in place. Ideally, if you have a garage with room for you to work in, the creating process is more pleasant than braving the elements. Enjoy and be as creative as you wish.

Freeze Dried Compost

Time and time again I am asked the same questions about compost, most notably, does it freeze and may I compost all winter. In this information overload period we have allowed ourselves to be involved in, of course there are a zillion answers and opinions on the subject. The long and the short of it is “does it really matter”? At one time it was only the gardeners who discussed such mundane issue of compost, well rotted manures and companion planting at cocktail parties, now it seems to have gone mainstream. Well, indeed compost does freeze and yes you may of course compost all winter long. Naturally, the materials are not going to decompose until the warmer weather, but think of the treasure trove of organic material that you’ll have.

There are some cautions to be observed in the final fling of the season and that is not to overload your composter(s) with an abundance of carbon (dry leaves). In order for your composter, winter or summer, to be working at peak, the ratio of green to brown is roughly 10 kg of leaves to 7 kg of greens such as grass clippings. There may be a better way to compost your leaves in a pile somewhere in the yard or a vacant space and let them decompose by themselves. The resulting leaf mould is an excellent soil additive, particularly in clay based soils. Leaf mould is also great as an additive to container mixes and window boxes, so don’t waste the leaves. You might run over the lot of them with the lawnmower to chop them up somewhat, that way they decompose even faster. Come spring, throw a handful of high nitrogen fertilizer (typical lawn food) on the pile and give it a bit of a turn over. The results are amazing.

We have found biodegradable liners for our indoor collector of kitchen wastes and that is a blessing. It makes the job of emptying the container that much more civilized than the old way. Neverthless, the questions and concerns regarding compost will never cease, perhaps there will be an App developed in the not to distant future to monitor the progress of the heap, pile or bin.

Turf Finale

Every year around mid-November, provided there isn’t snow, I tackle what is left of my lawn. Late season preparation for winter is crucial to the health of even my limited amount of turfgrass. Generally speaking, the leaves have all fallen so a good, brisk raking is in order. I do not bag all my leaves for composting as most are used as an insulating cover for my perennials. The fact is however, the leaves need to be removed from the lawn in order to ensure survivability. Once all of my perennial beds are loaded with leaves, the remainder are bagged and sent to the municipal composting site. My twin composting units I hope are chocked full of kitchen waste by this time, so I don’t feel too badly contributing to the great good of all.

My new lawn mower is one of the mulching variety with a detachable catcher. For the final cut of the season, I do use the catcher rather than leave the mulched clippings on the lawn. Reason being is that along with grass left too tall for the winter, decomposing clippings will give rise to snow mould. Leaves that are dry on the other hand, can be mulched up and left according to some research, I’m not taking the chance.

The final (hopefully) cut of the lawn is a bit different than that of the regular as I raise the mower blades to double the summer cut length, the second from the highest on my mower. Understand that the more top growth the deeper the root growth, however leaving the grass too long results in matting and diseases follow. This summer I did over sow my lawn with seed resulting in a good catch of thick new turf. I purposely left this section taller so as to encourage deep rooting, but now it’s time to chop!

The hoses are all rolled up, the water turned off, tools tucked away for the winter onset. The more that I can accomplish this month makes my spring chores that much easier and more relaxed.