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Garden with a Winner!™

Sept 2, 2018 Autumn Chores

Many Canadian gardeners agree that September is the busiest month in their garden. This month has a reputation of being somewhat unreliable in the weather department, with the only sure thing being that colder weather will follow. Lower light conditions, ever shortening days for many tend to instill a sense of urgency, often almost anxious exhaustion. Somehow the similar workloads of the spring season result in a much different degree of exhaustion. I for one struggle to get through September and early October with a fully accomplished sense about myself. In that I am often away from my garden for extended periods of time, the workload when I am there seems daunting, even on a good day. Perhaps energy levels are directly related and relevant to the amount of sunlight and warmth of the day! Alas the work list expands, the days shorten and enthusiasm wanes.

My garden is predominantly perennial plants and as such require minimal maintenance in September with the enormous exception of my tendency to want to re-organize, shuffle and otherwise change the look of the landscape. So as has been written previously, it is a good time to divide and move many of the established perennials in your garden. What ought not to be included is fertilizing at this time of the year. You will a fair amount of literature supporting the notion of a winter feed, fall fertilizer and so on; perhaps for lawns yes, providing that the formulation is appropriate with very low nitrogen content and higher Phosphorus and Potassium. The reasoning behind not feeding perennials, trees and shrubs in the fall is simply that they will burst forth with a surge of new, softer growth that typically will not have time to mature/harden before the frosts. However, this is a great time to give your compost a stir or forking over for perhaps that final time this season. Personally, I keep two composters going, one for the fresh materials and the other settling and working, it will be ready for use in the spring.

September is when most of the spring flowering bulbs will be on the market and for the most of Canada the time to plant them as well. Tulips, Daffodils, Crocus and Narcissus are of the most popular and sadly, favoured by squirrels. While scuffling around in your perennial boarders attempting to find just one more spot to plant a ‘few’ new bulbs, be aware that the posse of squirrels have their beady little eyes on your every movement. I have come to the conclusion that my squirrel population consider me as one, very large, old squirrel who is invading their domain. As such, every thing that I plant is rapidly torn up and usually destroyed as they must think that I am stashing away my supplies for the winter in a secret larder. Indeed, I have tried everything that is considered to work to keep these vermin away, to no avail. Suggestions welcomed!

Hosta and other larger leafed perennials will be turned to mush after the first hard frost and as such become an absolute delicacy for the fattening slugs. Best to clean those leaves up and compost them but leave the rest until spring. Lately, I am placing a marker of some sort around the Hostas so that I know (remember) that there is a clump at that spot so that I done over zealously plant something else there. If you have been gardening for as long as I have you now precisely what I mean. More recent gardeners, as in only a few years of involvement, it is still a good idea; you will thank me one day.

September is also a good inventory time for tools and equipment. If you are fortunate enough to have a garden storage shed or potting shed, that is the ideal spot to house all the accoutrements that are so essential in our craft. Sharpen your spades and other cutting tools, protect them with a light coating of either sewing machine oil or even olive oil works, just to abate any rust. Store the vestiges of clay pottery, garden lights, flats and other useful materials in order to be able to find them next spring. I like to clean up any fallen fruit from under the trees and compost it or leave it in an exposed area for the wildlife. Generally, I leave all of the seed heads and emptied flower stalks of my plants intact. The overwintering birds as well as the migratory ones and yes, even the squirrel posse use the seeds and bits ‘n pieces for food, fodder and lodging materials. In my region it is essential to capture as much snow as is possible because extreme winter conditions with little to no snow insulation is a recipe for disaster. Remember to breathe and enjoy the fall regime.

August 19, End of the Month Fun

August is one of my favorite months in the garden. Typically, this is a time to sit and relax (sort of) and enjoy all the planning and the work of the season and many gardeners who work outside the home are vacationing. The perennials that boast colour in August throughout Canada are plentiful and just as welcome as the first flowers of spring. Monkshood or Aconitum often continues to unfurl new slipper-like flowers up her ever-stretching bloom stalk begging to be yet again staked and tied.  Some of the earlier fall Asters may be showing some colour only to be followed in September with the entire gang showing off their purple and pink cluster of daisy-like flowers. August is the time of year that I add a bit of high phosphorus and potassium to my perennials, with as little nitrogen in the formula as is possible. My reasoning is to bolster flower and seed production as well as encourage a very stable and strong root system as the days start to shorten. My fall Asters are particularly thankful for this extra treat and push even more flowers than seems possible. The reliable and prolific Hosta still maintain a few bloom stalks in spite of the ravages of wind and my tendency to overhead water. This months is a good time to take stock of your, apparently endless, collection of Hosta and plan where the next divisions will be planted or offered to neighbours and friends. A shot of the same fertilizer for them is not untoward either. The Rudbeckia gang or black-eyed Susan always outperform in August. The native species so common along the roadsides of many provinces are reliable in your landscape, requiring little to no care other than watering. Hybrid Rudbeckia and the plethora of horticultural varieties on the market can even be planted in August provided that you water sufficiently and in colder regions, cover with dry leaves for their first winter. Some of their cousins, the Gaillardia, will still be showing some colour but for the most part, will be in seed which is great for small birds. Sneezeweed, aptly named or Helenium is a classic fall bloomer, however as the name suggests, it can cause allergen sensitive people to react. Image result for aster

For the most part this August just keep a watchful eye on the estate, cleaning up any straggling bits and pieces and peruse with pride. Autumn will undoubtedly follow with all the chores associated with that months, so bask in your success and ignore any of the mistakes, at least for now.

August 5th Take A Walk on the Wild Side

Canadian native plants offer a huge assortment of species that offer many benefits to the urban landscape from perennials to specimen trees. As a matter of fact, there are a great many horticultural varieties that have humble roots, excuse the pun, in Canadian natives. One may see the term wild conferred on native plants, which in some cases, conjures up less than positive images. Indeed, these plants come from and have survived in the wild (native Canadian landscape) but don’t deserve to be labelled uncontrollable, weedy and/or invasive. Think of wild flowers for example, the mental images associated with this term are generally pleasant such as Black-Eyed-Susan along the cottage road or the Joe Pye Weed in full bloom near the lake. Many of our native trees are reliable candidates for the urban landscape as well, Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina), for example. Sumac in eastern Canada, will grow in massive, mounding communities often shading out any plant competition that attempts to grow under them. We took advantage of this characteristic at our cottage, where the Sumac grows exceptionally well, so that I didn’t have to cut grass in that area. Frankly, cutting grass at the cottage is a corporate waste of leisure time in my books, so there really isn’t very much at all and most of what was a ‘lawn’ is not predominantly wild flowers.

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Sumac, as a tough native shrub, offers the same advantages common to all native trees, shrubs and perennials. Most notably the easy and infrequent maintenance required to keep the plant in form followed by a very high tolerance for temperature fluctuation and amount of moisture required to sustain growth. One of the most enduring characteristics of this shrub are the deep, burgundy floral stalks that are not only attractive but the supply copious amounts of food for birds. The high content of available vitamin C as well as the heavy tannins may well be beneficial to many bird species. As a matter of fact, human consumption is also beneficial and most notably Sumac is used to make a refreshing pink summer drink. The process is remarkably simply as the flower/seed stalks are collected, washed and broken into small, manageable size pieces. Place this into a large jar with COLD water and let it steep overnight at least. The resulting elixir is then strained through a coffee filter or similar which then produces a very refreshing and healthy libation. The early peoples of Canada used all parts of the Sumac except the roots, as a dye for cloth. The resulting fabric held a deep burgundy hue which lasted indefinitely.

Another great ‘Wild’ shrub is the Nannyberry or properly Viburnum lentago. This shrub is one of the absolute most flexible of the native shrubs there is, with little to no preference for sun or shade. If grown in sun soaked locations it tends to grow taller than is typical but generally it reaches a maximum height of 7-8 M (25 ft). The abundant white flowers occur in late May or early spring offering a buffet for starving pollinators and quite a showy presence for the gardener. The clusters are creamy white and to many, resemble small Hydrangea flowers. Nevertheless, the Nannyberry outperforms itself every year with incredible amounts of dark blue berries. My plants tend to perform optimally when they receive lots of water, or at the cottage property, when they are close to a low, damp spot. Their autumn show is equally impressive as they turn a wonderful burgundy red which contrast well with any remaining berries. Birds love these berries as they are often held into the winter therefore supply much need nutrients during harsh weather. Human consumption has been going on since the earliest of people. Jams and jellies as well as wine are common uses today for this rich in antioxidant, fresh fruit. Even though Nannyberry is self pollinating you will enjoy a much richer harvest if you plant at least a partner plant for cross pollination. The shrub does grow suckers from underground thus forming colonies or clumps so attempts to restrain the plant will be required, otherwise let nature do her job.

All in all, there are a great many trees, shrubs and perennials that are native to Canada with excellent qualities for your landscape. Consider that selecting plants that not only offer a food source in the summer and fall but also provide ample flowering for pollinators early in the season.

July 8, 2018- Turf Substitutes, Living Mulches

Turf grass is perhaps my least favourite component in the urban garden, however I do concede that it has a place, just not in my garden. This is an ongoing discussion (to be delicate) in our household, as I would have no turf, yet my wife has and entirely opposite opinion. For a few years I would surreptitiously edge what little turf there was in my garden, ever so slightly removing a bit more of the turf every time that I am ‘tidying up’ the lawn area. Predictably I was stopped in my tracks when it was finally noticed that the lawn was nearly eliminated, and I continued to purchase more perennials as the beds grew larger. Perched precariously on the horns of a dilemma, a rapid solution was clearly the strategy. As a critical and creative thinker, I proposed a compromise, a substitution of green and turf-like plants yet less dependant on copious amounts of water and reduced maintenance.

In previous posts I have discussed mulches and the many associated benefits; living mulches offer the same fundamental benefits however require a bit more planning initially. A living mulch is simply a plant or collection of plants that will form a dense mat, typically close to soil level. Once the ground covers, as they are often referred to as, knit together, they will do the same job as other organic and inorganic mulches do. That is to say, soil moisture is retained for longer periods; soil temperatures remain more constant and undesirable plants (weeds) are kept to a minimum. The overall concept is to create a tapestry or carpet of textures, colours and often scents as well.

Where to start is often confusing for inexperienced gardeners so for that the default is always the soil. No matter what type of garden you are planning, the key to continued success is a strong and viable soil. It is important to understand the type of soil that you are working with in that clay, as an example, had very fine particles and offers a different set of circumstances than does the larger particle sandy soil. All soils require similarly, air and organic matter in order to function properly. Clay will require more organic matter in order to keep the fine soil particles separate thus allowing air into the mix whereas sand has significant air and requires even more organic matter to help bind the particles. Additional fine particle soil can be added to sand to ‘beef’ it up so to speak, loam is the preferred conditioner or the purchased ‘triple mix’. Once the tilth and texture of the base soil has the ability to hold moisture but not remain sodden after substantial watering, it is time to consider the living mulch selection. One quick way of determining if the soil is competent is to squeeze a handful of the moistened soil in your hand and if it stays in form without falling apart, the soil is ready.  Should the mix remain solid after a poke with your finger, it is to heavy; contrarily if it won’t hold form it requires more organic matter.

Consider the exposure of the area that is to be planted so as to be able to select plants for full sun, partial and so on. Naturally, if the living mulch is to be installed under larger perennials or shrubs, the competition for water and light must be considered. Personally, I prefer to mix plants with various leaf textures with others that offer blossoms and scent. There is no rule book that would suggest that herbs and edibles can not be great companions so there is quite a wide range of selection.

Aubrietia and Arctic Phlox are of my favourites for early season colour and tremendous reliability. These hardy perennials offer a fairly wide range of colour selections and throw blooms profusely in the spring. Thereafter, their thick, matting nature make them excellent choices as living mulches. You might consider planting Allium or early blooming, minor spring bulbs such as crocus or snowdrops with them to add some height and interest. Thyme in all of her varietal splendor is excellent for the hot sunny spots in your landscape. She will amble along over even the driest locations, setting down roots as required to support her. Variegated selections offer a punctuation mark in the mulch and the familiar scent of Thyme will waft in the heat of summer. Bees and other pollinators are very fond of Thyme as are they of Oregano, another excellent choice as a living mulch. Sedums and the associated “Sun Lovers’ will continue to mat and provide superb ground cover and living mulch for those most hostile of locations in the heat and sun.

There are many more perennials that will perform admirably as living mulches, it just takes a bit of time to take a look. I encourage you to consider taking a look at your options for turf as there are environmental concerns with monocultures as well the excessive use of potable water reserves. Perhaps attempt a small portion of your landscape as a trial and see how you like it, then make up your mind accordingly.

June 23, 2018- Ninebark

Drought tolerant plants or at least those that will survive with minimal water are always in demand, particularly in the mid west of the country. Drier conditions due to lack of rainfall combined with ever present winds set up a condition that is not favourable to many plants. The Ninebarks are tolerant and well suited to conditions as described and luckily, they come in a considerable array of colours. One can suppose that the odd common name relates to the habit of these plants to have rather shaggy, peeling bark, perhaps into nine layers? Botanically they are labelled as Physocarpus opulifolius with derivatives for cultivars and varieties, but generally all called simply Ninebarks. I have several varieties in my urban landscape and yes, each year about this time, they require some pruning, renewal and often times a thinning. ‘Diablo’ has been one of my favourites for many years with its rich, deep reddish-purple foliage contrasting beautifully with any of the chartreuse or yellowish companion foliage. Her flower buds are a rather showy pink then burst into white clusters at the ends of each branch. The foliage is somewhat coarse, but it provides a marvelous backdrop for the early spring flowers. My plants remain in bloom, of course depending on the winds, for about three weeks then the magic of texture and foliage takes over. Often, the plants will set fruit, but I wouldn’t suggest them as a food source as they are toxic in large or uncontrolled dosages. In times past, the fruit of the native Ninebark was used in traditional medicines as a laxative as well as for many female associated problems and infertility. In the fall my ‘Diablo’ turns a rather orangey-red and with hard frosts even more red. Once all the foliage has been lost the shaggy bark of this variety as well as the others, adds interest to the winter landscape. The older specimens reach about 2.5 metres in height and would probably go further if I neglected them. Consider this growth habit when you are establishing location as without care they can be rather tall and thicket-like.

There are many varieties of Ninebark that do not exceed reasonable limits for the urban garden, and of note all Ninebarks are extremely tolerant of urban climate situations, pollution, compacted soil and all the other delightful conditions that the city offers. This is, naturally one of the reasons that you will see so many varieties of ninebarks used in mall landscapes and city streetscapes. For the novice gardener, this is great news as any plant that can withstand this abuse should do very well with some TLC. The specimens that provide the best colour and show in my urban garden receive the most sun. Others that are less fortunate still perform very well however with lighter foliage shades. ‘Little Devil’ Ninebark is the dwarf form of ‘Diablo’ reaching only 1- 1.5 metres in height. This ‘lil rascal will provide the same intense foliage colour of it’s cousin as well as white-pink clusters of flowers this month. ‘Summer Wine’ is heralded as a dwarf also however tends to stretch a tad more than most of the literature cited. She boasts a very dense and compact growth form, with the odd ‘spidery’ stem running above the others. Her flowers are also June borne and range from white to pink, contrasting beautifully against the deep reddish foliage. ‘Centre Glow’ companions very well with both, however should be planted in the background as it will reach 2 metres if unchecked. The foliage of ‘Centre Glow’ does just that… the new growth glows with a yellowish tint contrasting against the red of the older foliage and outer edge of each leaf. I have used stalks of this and other Ninebarks in floral arrangements for the patio and deck. The flowers don’t last very well but the striking foliage makes up for it indeed.

There are many varieties to ogle over all with similar cultural requirements. Consider including ‘Dart’s Gold’, Nugget’, ‘Amber Jubilee’ and ‘Coppertina’ in your portfolio of Physocarpus.