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Garden with a Winner!™

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.


June 9, 2018- Spiraea

June is such a great month for blossoms, perhaps why it is a favoured month for weddings. Ok, a cheesy segue but I couldn’t resist as Spirea are in full bloom now, “Bridalwreath” leading the pack of good old standby shrubs. I recall, as a very young lad, a wonderful, massively white flowering shrub in the corner of my yard with a rather heady fragrance. Spirea was one of the very first plants that I learned the name for and also how difficult it was to move. Pollinators of all kinds loved this plant, in particular the bees as I became oh so familiar with; once stung twice wary! Spirea is the spelling that you will see most frequently in catalogues and at garden centres, however the correct botanical spelling is ‘Spiraea’, both work just fine.

Beginning gardeners might consider establishing a Bridalwreath Spirea in their landscape as they are somewhat forgiving maintenance-wise and very resilient with abundant bloom. Bridalwreath tends to be vase shaped with a dense, twiggy interior. As with many of this family, the stems have smaller and rather sharp thicket-like branches which leave the poor gardener with wounds if not careful. Once flowering is past, the long, graceful branches hold onto the last remains of flowers for a good length of time. This is my cue to start pruning and re-working the shrub. A great many folks tend to simply rip into this plant and ‘shape’ them into odd looking figures, apparently forgetting what the plant really is supposed to look like. Try to keep your Bridalwreath in a vase shape by removing the oldest wood first, leaving about 1/3 of it until next year. Next, tackle the secondary or slightly smaller wood doing the same; remove some completely at ground level and leave some to maintain the shape. Finally, remove the least amount of new wood as it will provide bloom for another year.

The family of Spirea is ever growing larger with some very interesting colour combinations and variation in sizes. Spirea ‘Little Princess’, ‘Gold Mound’ and ‘Gold Flame’ are very popular and relatively easily maintained specimens. These members of the family are much easier to maintain and often will provide some floral show from June until autumn. ‘Shirobana’ is a delightful shrub in the species japonica, that sports red, white and pink flowers simultaneously on a background of deep, rich green foliage. This group will grow to about 1M tall and equally as wide which makes them ideal plants for hedging and mass plantings.

Gold Flame (Spiraea x bumalda ‘Goldflame’ or (Spiraea japonica ‘Goldflame’) has beautiful orange-red foliage in the early spring which deepens to a lovely yellow. This, as with most of the japonica species, is a rapid grower with small, serrated leaves. One attribute that makes this arm of the family so attractive to landscapers or for mass planting, is that the foliage continues to soil level so that no ‘face’ plantings are necessary to mask unsightly stems. In the autumn this particular variety turns crimson red, once again offering a substantial value for mass plantings, hedges and group plantings in the home landscape.

All Spirea are deciduous and are relatively densely branched. This is a positive attribute in colder climates as the shrubs will collect and hold snow cover thus extending their hardiness. New varieties continue to land on the market some apparently everblooming with most of them touting ‘deer resistant’ qualities. Personally, there is really nothing that a deer won’t eat if it is hungry enough, just sayin’! Enjoy June in your garden, it is really a marvellous season.

May 13, 2018- Mulch Me

Frost dates vary from region to region and in particular during the month of May. There is a wheelbarrow load of gardening folklore that might have you wait until the first full moon of June before planting anything or perhaps checking the bushiness of the local squirrels’ tails in order to select the most appropriate time. The best way, I feel, is to keep records of your own in a journal so that each year your own special micro-climate will have its own custom frost date calendar. Actually, there are likely several areas of your landscape that have different micro-climates depending on proximity to buildings, exposure, overhead coverage, other plants and so on. A seasoned gardener will know each demi-section of their garden and which can be planted the earliest in the season without fear of damaging frost. Being ‘gung ho’ and all about completing the planting in a weekend or within a day or so, may not be the best approach to take. The green industry has and continues to provide all manner of season-stretchers supplicating the over anxious of us. A great many designs exist for conical, teepee-like plastic enclosures for tomatoes and for that matter, any soft tissue plants; some have sections that can be filled with water while others boast red colour to enhance growth. All seem to work reasonably well for sure, however, there is an expense involved of course and one must have sufficient room for all this paraphernalia. Safe to say that waiting a few more days is a lot less cumbersome and the plants will catch up in no time to their earlier planted cousins. Perennials of course don’t require, or shouldn’t require an extra boost in the spring, they just push along without assistance, you might consider using a mulch though to reduce your workload later in the season.

Mulches come in a vast array of materials from inert, like ground up rubber, fabrics and films, stones or to the organic classes such as wood chips and coconut fibre. My preference is to plant a ‘living mulch’ where possible. What I describe as living mulch references low growing perennials such as Aubrieta and Arctic Phlox, however, there is a myriad of selection to choose from. Mat forming perennials perform the functions of mulch admirably with the additional benefit that they provide colour as well. Mulch functions as an insulation for the soil providing much needed relief from heat and sunshine which cause the soil to dry rapidly. Further, mulch will help prevent unwanted growth (weeds) around your perennial plants but generally not eliminate the need for periodic weeding. Many people do not realize that mulch also moderates the soil temperature, again like an insulation. Extreme variations in soil temperatures in the early season are particularly damaging on new plantings. Naturally, a mulch is applied once the ground has warmed sufficiently and preferably just after a good cultivation to remove unwanted plants. I am asked many times about the depth that mulch should be applied and truly, there is a lot of variation. Organic mulches will eventually decompose and add some nutrient to the perennial bed while inert materials remain much as they were when installed. Assuming that a landscape fabric or barrier of some sort has been laid on the soil, a light covering of mulch is sufficient; alternatively, if no fabric has been used, the mulch needs to be at least a couple of inches deep to be functional. Landscape fabrics have come a long way over the years but if you prefer, newsprint works well also. What I have done in the past is use roughly an entire section of the paper and lay it on the soil with other sections in an overlapping, brick-like style. Naturally over time the newsprint breaks down and the ink, being canola oil based, poses no threat to the soil microorganisms. This method is particularly good when developing a new perennial bed if you are adding new topsoil to old. Simply remove the turf (if there was any) dig as deeply as you can into the base soil, then add the newsprint and then the new topsoil. Some gardeners will simply lay the newsprint on top of the original soil and then pile on the new soil to a desired height, it’s fast and seems to work ok too. Using poly of any sort is really not a good idea in my book but it is used as well. Should this be your chosen method, ensure that you perforate the poly to allow moisture to flow into the soil. Seems sensible but often times a step that is missed.


May 1st, 2018-The Merry Merry Month of May

May is the virtual starting pistol for many gardeners across Canada. After spending much of the colder months planning, fussing, ordering and dreaming, the time has come to put plans into action. My preference is to start rather slowly and continue at a moderate pace for a number of reasons, one of course is my level of energy. I garden in a zone 2-3 so, often in early May, the ground is not entirely thawed, turfgrass is usually sopping wet and the overall mess in the garden is overwhelming. The reliable Pulmonaria or Lungworts manage to push their way through the remaining detritus and flush with their distinctive pink and blue bell-shaped bouquets. These little workhorses of the early garden deserve much more credit than typically given as they always perform well early on. Once the full flush of foliage has past its prime and the flowers of course are long gone, it is wise to cut them back to ground level and allow them to re-grow a new crown of foliage for the summer months. Many gardeners will opt to divide them at this point to spread the wealth as it were and also make room for new additions in their place. One variety of particular note is ‘Spilled Milk’ a long-leafed variety with silvery – white variegations which give reason for its name. I like this plant for darker corners of the early garden as it adds a distinctive ‘punctuation mark’ and draws the eye into the depths.

Scuffling around the early May garden is always interesting, particularly as we get older. So often when I am uncovering and cultivating I come across a plant that I have forgotten about entirely, what a nice surprise! The point here is to be careful as you uncover and start to regenerate the perennial beds as there may well be hidden treasures from previous years that you have overlooked or forgotten where they lived; don’t be overly anxious to tidy up. Early May is an excellent time to add soil amendments to your roses and larger, woody perennials such as Lavender. Roses particularly enjoy a liberal application of well-rotted manure as soon as you can get to the rose beds. Not only does a hefty dose of poo add to the soil nutrition, it smothers out many of the early perennial and germinating annual weeds that tend to enjoy the company of roses. I recall being totally disgusted with this assignment as a horticulture student as it seemed to be punitive for those of us unaccustomed to barnyard aromas. Once past the initial shock of it all, I learned that this was an excellent opportunity to take a good close look at the roses to determine winter damage, consider my next steps in pruning and generally get a sense of how my crop had wintered. The Hybrid Tea roses were hilled with soil from the surrounding bed, so this is a good time to remove that cover as well and it also helps mitigate the festive aroma of spring in the rose garden. I use a piece of a wooden tool handle that broke ages ago as my bespoke rose cleaner tool, works like a charm to poke out all the soil around the thorny branches. Note to self, wear gloves this year! Pruning the Hybrid Tea roses does take some understanding of the growth pattern but in very general terms you should have about three to five good healthy canes only. Attempt to keep the centre of the plant open and clear of crossing canes and remove all the growth down to three to five buds only. Preferably the top bud should be on the outer side of the cane as this is the direction that it will grow, thus leaving the centre nice and open. Remembering that fewer buds and canes will make for stout and sturdy plants with an abundance of flowers may make it easier for you to chop down almost all of the previous year’s growth.

The month of May indeed will sport the longest ‘to-do list’ of the early garden season, so rest up and remember that it can’t all be done on a weekend. Enjoy the merry, merry month of May.

April 29, 2018- Early Planting

Warmer weather and apparently ever-increasing levels of energy, the gardener is often seen stalking the local garden centres and large retail box stores for the earliest and yes, best bargains of the season. Control is of the utmost importance here as many of us do tend to get carried away, but then again look at all the selection! Many outlets will be draped with billowing cascades of annuals from stem to stern tempting the pale and peeked, winter weary gardener. Frosts are not the least unusual in late April and into May in a great portion of Canada, but oh the selection! Ok, if you have no will power whatsoever load up on the annuals and be prepared to lug them inside nightly to protect them from Jack Frost. Alternatively, to the delight of many garden centres, leave them outside and return to the store and purchase round two and perhaps round three.

Perennials on the other had are much more reliable candidates for early season planting, many actually benefit from the early shunt.

Once the soil in your garden is workable and warmed up somewhat, early planting of many perennials is, to my way of thinking, the place to start. Many retailers instruct their wholesale suppliers to ship the plants when they are in bloom, and I get that however, I prefer to plant specimens that are not in bloom. My experience is that the plants are stronger and establish better if they are in active growth but not pushing floral stalks this early. As difficult as it may seem, it’s probably better for the plant if you remove the flower stalks prior to planting so that the energy is directed into forming new roots so as to establish the plant. This is entirely at the discretion of the gardener, as with many things, everybody has their preferred way of doing things. The low growing mat-like Aubrietia and Arctic phlox of course would do well no matter how they are installed, I do not attempt to remove their flower stalks. Contrarily, Echinacea, Hemerocallis, Heuchera and Liatris I would definitely perform surgery on.

On a general note, when planting container grown perennial materials, ensure that the depth of your planting hole is the same as the depth of soil in the pot. This is a pretty common-sense comment, but you would be surprized at the number of plants that are either over planted or remain sticking above the soil line. Once planted, pack the soil around the area and of course water liberally. Normally spring soils are near saturation however, applied water will force the air pockets from around the newly planted root ball and lead to a much better adhesion with the parent soil. Many gardeners like to incorporate a good fertilizer, either organic or not, when planting to encourage strong and rapid root growth. Keep in mind that the middle of the three numbers on any fertilizer label represents Phosphorus or ‘P’ which stimulates root growth. Composts and manures are excellent additives as well, but not just yet as they tend to be higher in ‘N’ or Nitrogen which forces soft, leafy growth. Magnesium sulfate or plain old Epsom Salt will help boost the growth and establishment of your newly acquired perennials. I add about two (2) tablespoons and up to four (4) in two litres of water and soak that in. Other colleagues will simply sprinkle the Epsom Salt on the soil surface around the plant and lightly incorporate with a trowel or fingers.

Some great early season perennials to consider are:  Pulmonaria, Sedum, Echinacea, Bergenia, Phlox, Aubrietia, Clematis, Hosta and many of the perennial veggies such as Rhubarb and Strawberry.

Remember to exercise caution and control as you prepare to launch into early planting season. Keep a weather eye wide open and follow the simple yet very important few points I have mentioned to ensure a successful start to the season. I may just see some of you at the garden centres this spring…loading up our carts with all our new ‘treasures’.