Sunday, July 11, 2004

Oh, my back

Yes, I've been delinquent writing here.
I've been delinquent weeding, too.
Initially, my excuse was that I needed to wait for all my bulbs I planted last fall to be finished.
That happened several weeks ago (it's been a long cool spring)

It also became evident by the middle of June that a whole whack of roses didn't make it through the winter. Sigh.

This past weekend I made up for the weeding problem, and spent 4 hours weeding the back yard yesterday.. That wasn't too bad, actually, but when I completed the weeding by plucking out yellowed leaves from daffodils, and cut the rest backk the garden looked really desolate. So Ash and I went out to Humber Nurseries to buy yet more plants.

First, before I describe them, I should really tell you what else I've already put in this spring....
In window boxes and urns, we've got petunias, 'Mont Blanc' nierembergia (lovely little white star-shaped flowers) nasturtiums, geraniums (Patriot -- bright red), four different types of sweet potato vine (ace of spades, Marguerite, tricolor (which has some pink edging in it), and a variegated one), licorice vines, heliotrope, torenia, and some annual salvia.

Now to the perennials.
I bought one pot of Saxifraga 'Apple Blossom' which is out beside the Othello rose. It's finished blooming for the season, and is now just a tight little cushion of green.

Near it is a Marble-leaf Sea Holly (Eryngium variifolium) which must be one fo the strangest plants I've ever purchased. It's prickly like a thistle, but is developing flower heads... It seems to be in some strange land between thistle and holly, in terms of looks. I'll take pictures when it matures.

Over in the shady garden (the south little bed against the fence) I bought a Heuchera vesuvius (Coral bells with mahogany colored leaves), which was mature enough that I split it into two before planting it> It's in flower now, and is lovely.
It works really well with a couple of foxgloves I put in (no flowers yet: maybe next year), a bleeding heart, and a lovely white astilbe that has finally come into its own. I've also put in a Heucher 'marmelade', which is an interesting color, and two ferns: a Japanese and korean fern. I have another Japanese fern the other side of the pond, which I thought had died, but showed itself in June.

In the sunny north garden, I planted three Persian Sheids (Strobilanthes) which have the most wonderful colors of green and fuchsia. Very metallic looking leaves: I'm waiting for them to get some height (they're still only about 3" tall, and should grow to 24-36" in height, according to the tags... I want some lovely photos of this trio of plants.

Also, at the west edge of the north garden I planted 3 rose mallows. One died; one is in blossom, and one yet to come into flower. They're a lovely, easy-to-care-for flower, as long as you stake them.

By the edge of the north garden, I planted a trio ofWolly lamb's ear, within easy touching distance. One must hit all the senses in a garden, after all :-D

In the herb garden, I planted a trio of rosemaries, two more lavender varieties, two sages (one purple sage, on large leaf variety), two oregano types, and a tarragon. I think I might pull up the bloody dock (lovely colors, but it does bolt, and we don't eat it) and replace it with a couple of basils.

Then yesterday, Ash and I bought more perennials.
All for the north garden, to fill the holes from the bulbs.

  • A couple of pale pink primroses
  • A trio of nicotiana, from deep red, through pale pink, to white
  • A couple of phlox panniculata in a color that works well with the primroses
  • Two more astilbes: one pink, one raspberry
  • A pink baby's breath
  • Two perennial salvias (deep blue/violet)
  • One perennial hibiscus (this should be a treat: lovely flowers, and we don't have to bring it indoors over the winter)
    and probably some other plants that I'll only remember after I file this and wander in the garden.

Anyways, that's just about it for today...
except to say: I GOT 85% ON MY FIRST TEST in Horticulture I! WWoooooo hooooo!
I'll save information about what we did about the dead roses for my next posting.
Until then, grow green!

Sunday, May 09, 2004

Gardening in small spaces

Sonya Day gave a great talk to the Master Gardeners to get us all warmed up! Here's a summary. Any errors are mine.

It's spring, and the gardening magazines tempt us with the promises of beauty, fragrance, and novelty. But -- alas! We turn the cover to see huge greenswards, lengthy vistas, interminable flower beds, and despair of being able to create anything as enticing on our apartment balcony, condo courtyard, or postage-stamp city lot. What's a person to do?

Lots! First, like any other gardener, you need to know your microclimate. Which direction does your gardening space point? Are there any large trees or buildings shading your space? The amount of light you get will play a huge role in the range of plants from which you can choose to personalize your space.

How high are you?

Gardening space on a balcony above the 8th floor is going to be windier than at ground level, and it is likely to get windier the higher you go. This also influences your plant choice, in terms of height (is that clematis going to be able to twine around the trellis in constant gale-force winds?) and drought resistance (evaporation rates on leaves and on the soil's surface increase with temperature and wind speed).

How much effort are you willing to put into it?

For example, don't buy cacti if you want something to tend to daily, and don't plant roses if you believe in benign neglect.

If you're at ground level, what's your soil like? Sand, loam, or potter's clay? Are you willing to amend it or build raised beds on top of it, if need be? Or do you want plants that do well, thank you, in the type of soil you naturally have?

Next, what do *you* want? What sort of atmosphere do you want to create? Hot, lush tropicals (you'll have to either bring them indoors in the winter or treat them like annuals)? Cool forest greens? English country garden, Zen garden, xeriscape, native plants only?

Armed with answers to these questions, you should be able to approach any knowledgeable garden centre employee and come away with a list (and maybe a basket) of plants tailored to your environment and temperament.

Some quick tips for a successful gardening season:

Don't plant tender plants until later in May. If you like herbs, you can plant parsley now, but leave the basil indoors until mid or late May, depending on how the season develops.

Plant trees and other woody-stemmed plants when it's cool, preferably before the buds break (so the plant can initially concentrate on root growth), and water carefully for the first year, according to instructions that come with your tree or shrub.

If you're moving tropical plants outdoors, move them into the sun gradually (leaves can and will get sunburned if you transition them too quickly).

If you're container gardening, be aware that clay pots are going to allow the soil to dry out faster, so you'll have to water more often.
Hydrogel crystals can help soil in containers retain moisture (they're available at Sheridan Nurseries in Toronto, and probably at other gardening centres).

Follow instructions. If a plant's tag says it requires full sun, it won't give you the results in the picture if you sit it in your north-facing window.

Projections on what's hot this year

Tropicals. Banana trees! Of course, you'd want to have enough space indoors to overwinter them.
Mixes of food and flowers. Plant a grape tomato variety among the sweetpeas.
Elephant ears. Start them indoors, move them outdoors, and harvest the bulbs in the fall for next year.
For more news about what's hot, see Canadian Gardening's website.

Looking for more information? You may want to get one of the following books, written by Toronto gardening writers:
The Urban Gardener - How to Grow Things Successfully on Balconies, Terraces, Decks and Rooftop, by Sonia Day. Key Porter Books
The Urban Gardener Indoors - How to Grow Things Successfully in Your House, Apartment or Condo, by Sonia Day. Key Porter Books.

For information about creating a small garden in the city, check out Marjorie Harris' website, or get her book "Pocket Gardening" published by Harpercollins Canada. Marjory also has a new book out on native plants, "Botanica North America: the guide to our Native plants, Their Botany, History, and How They Have Shaped Our World" published by Harper Collins, and has gardened organically in Toronto for the last 30 years. It sounds like a great book. I'm ordering it.

Also, during May, members of the Master Gardeners of Ontario will be available to talk to (for free) about your garden at all Toronto-area Sheridan Nurseries.

Have fun, and grow green!

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Growing Green in Toronto

In 1962, Rachel Carson published "Silent Spring" about environmental
damage caused by DDT and chemical pesticides, and predicted a desolate
future caused by the poorly-tested chemicals used to grow our food and
keep the golf greens putt-perfect. Her book shot to the top of the
best-seller list, she was on the cover of Time magazine, and people
listened. This was the effective start of the environmental protection

The City of Toronto will become more envlronmentally sensitive by
implementing the first stage of a new pesticide bylaw. Starting on
April 1st, many insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides may no longer
be used on your lawn or in your garden as a matter of course.

Why is the city doing this?

In part, because we don't know what the
long-term effect is of the chemicals used in combination -- their use is
pretty recent, dating only as far back as the 20th century, with most
having been developed after World War II.

Toronto's pesticides frequently travel from lawns and gardens when
heavy rains wash them into the storm sewer system. These chemicals end
up in Lake Ontario, the source of Toronto's drinking water. The city
filtration systems simply aren't capable of removing all chemicals from
our drinking water.

How does this new bylaw affect you?

For starters, it's time to take any leftover Round-Up to your closest
hazardous materials drop site. Weed & Feed is also prohibited, as are
chemical weedkillers that rely on surface-coating broad-leafed
weeds. Most spraying to kill insects is also forbidden, unless it's
city-directed to kill West Nile infected mosquitoes.

How will you adjust to this new way of gardening?

Consider your expectations: is it reasonable to expect an unvarying
green lawn, even in the height of a drought, when the plants are
stressed and less resistant to insects and disease? If you're willing to
be a bit less of a perfectionist, you'll have an easier time. There are a few areas to look at: soil, weeds, and bugs.

Good lawns and gardens all start with the same basic ingredient: soil.
If you have healthy, well-structured soil, you'll have an easier time
growing healthy plants.

What can you do to promote this type of soil?

If you don't already have
one going, now is the time to start a compost pile. Composting is easy,
benefits your soil, and reduces the garbage destined for landfill sites.
You can buy a composter from almost any hardware store or the City of

There are a few general principals for a healthy, sweet-smelling heap:

  • layer green (recently alive, like kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, or
    freshly-killed weeds) and brown (shredded newsprint, dead leaves from
    last year)

  • keep it moist, but not wet. The bacteria need moisture to do their
    work, but if the pile starts smelling foul, that's a sign that you've
    got an anaerobic bacteria take-over in progress: if it's smelling bad, turn the pile daily for a week to help it dry a little, and to bring some oxygen into it to help the good bacteria win the battle. A fistful of nitrogen fertilizer might
    help, too.

  • no meat products or byproducts. No dairy products. Although these will
    compost, you're likely to attract city-based vermin to your pile: rats, raccoons, even coyotes if you're near one of the city's ravines. They will make a mess, and your neighbours will hate you. You don't want that, now, do you?

After a couple of months, you should have rich, sweet, well-rotted
compost. Dig it into your gardens, or top dress your lawn and around
plants. You'll be rewarded with healthy plants that are more
disease-resistant and better able to cope with bugs and slugs.

How to deal with weeds?

A healthy thick lawn can keep many weeds at bay
by crowding them out. The best way to get rid of them once you have
them is to dig them up. Some can be easily pulled. Others require
assistance. A whole assortment of aids is available these days, from
tools like the garden claw and loop hoes, to water pressure-based tools
that liquify the soil around the weed so it can be pulled, and butane
torches for immediate destruction of weeds between paving stones. Check out your local hardware store or Lee Valley Tools.

If you're looking for an inexpensive, safe, and effective technique to spot-kill weeds, pour boiling water over them. In about 3-4 days they'll wither and be
very easy to remove, even from between interlocking brick.

But what about bugs?

Dealing with bugs can be very trying. There's nothing quite like checking up on some rose buds that are about to open, only to discover that a cane borer has turned the stem into a flute and all the buds are dying. Most bugs have natural predators, and if you make your garden safe for them, they'll help keep the population of the bad bugs down somewhat.

If you've got to get rid of bugs, the first and best way to kill them is to squash them (or kill them manually some other way). It leaves no environmental residue, but it does mean that you need to be eternally vigilant. The second route, for insects like aphids, is to spray them off with water. The third path of attack is insecticidal soap, which kills bugs on contact. Read the instructions first: it can't be used on all plants.

Some pesticides are still available if you need something stronger. These are more natural solutions than the outlawed chemicals, but can still be quite toxic. Natural methods for dealing with insects include nematodes to eat grubs, rotenone to control chewing insects, or pyrethrum to kill many sorts of bugs. Check with the experts at your local gardening centre: they should be able to point you in the right direction. One word of caution: you may still find some of the banned substances for sale in local hardware stores, where the owners may not be aware of the new bylaw. Compliance is your responsibility.

A good rule of thumb to use when taking care of a lawn or garden is to
start with the least harmful solution, and gradually work up through
more toxic solutions only if the environmentally friendly solution
didn't work. Strong insecticides kill the beneficial insects as well as the pests, so they should be avoided whenever possible.

For more information about growing green and the City of Toronto's new
bylaw, see the following files on the city website:

If you have any gardening questions, don't hesitate to ask the
Master Gardeners organization (throughout North America) -- the Toronto
group may be contacted at their gardening Q&A board or by phone at 416-397-1345..

There's also some good information on growing organic lawns
and on biological control out there.

Have fun, and grow green!


Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Seed Catalogue Time

Time to get some more catalogues in before I try to make final decisions.

I have Vesey's bulb catalogues, and now I've also placed orders for catalogues from the Halifax Seed Company and Ontario Seeds Company.

I'm trying to shop within Canada (limiting the possibility of bringing in exotics that are prohibited here), and also, wherever possible, helping out the local economy. For example, Ontario Seeds Company is about 100 kilometers from here. I must confess, I also ordered from Stokes, which I think is an American company.

My next step should be to plant only plants native to this region of Ontario.

Maybe I'll get there after I retire, and have a large property. It's so difficult to restrict oneself to such plants when you've got a total of about 300 square feet!


Thursday, February 05, 2004

Starting plants indoors

I've purchased different sorts of contained, lidded plant-starting contraptions and used them in the past, but never with satisfactory results.

I always ended up with the cotyledons, and, if I was lucky, one or two pairs of real leaves before the seedlings got too leggy to support themselves, fell over, and died. Some of the deaths may have been caused by damping off, but I usually worked with sterilized potting soil in a sterilized container, which should eliminate that problem.

Yet, undaunted, I think I'll try again this year. I may start the seeds in vermiculite instead of soil, but I think the biggest change I can make is a stronger light source.

Instead of starting plants in the third-floor east-facing bedroom, I'll use my office at work. Although located on the west side of the building, its aspect is more west-south-west than true west. I hope that will spell the difference between success and failure. I have many plants in my office that seem to be thriving (although they are pretty undemanding in terms of sunlight required: 2 spider plants, 5 ferns, and an African violet; they made it through the dark days of winter). I hope it will be a good spot to start seeds.

I think I'll try two types: sweet peas and foxgloves. I want both in the back yard and they are supposed to be pretty easy to grow from seed. One for sun, one for shade: if nothing else, they should help me determine the sun tolerance extremes of my window sills.

One piece of gardening myth/trivia: plant your seeds before the morning of St. Patrick's Day for best results (this tidbit came from Birds & Blooms Magazine -- it's completely ad-free, and they're on the web at


Monday, February 02, 2004

Dreaming of green things

Things I'd like to grow in my garden this year:

  • Lady's mantle (again). I really like the ruffled velvet look of the leaves, and the way water beads on them.
  • Sweet peas. Joanne grew them on the roof deck at work, and they look very pretty in a Victorian way with their loosely-ruffled blossoms in faded pastel colors, and they smell wonderful.
  • Acidantheras (again). Yes it's a PITA having to plant and dig them up each year, and they need to have support, but I love those six-pointed white flowers with the aubergine touches in the throat, the way they bob in a breeze, and the delicate vanilla fragrance.
  • Salpiglossis, another Victorian flower. It comes in many colors, reminds me of stained glass, and with its yellow throat, looks illuminated from within. Very photogenic.
  • Trilliums. I'm sure there must be a mail-order garden store in Ontario that has cultivated trilliums. I used to bring home bouquets of them for my mother when I was a child in the 'burbs of Montreal. Maybe they could be the spring flower to come up every year along the south fence. Hmmmm.
  • FOXGLOVES!! I don't think I had any last year, and they are one of my favorite flowers. I saved some seed from two years ago, so I'll have to see if it is still viable. It likes shade, so it should do well along the south fence.
  • Okra. Because the flowers are beautiful pale purple hibiscus-like blossoms.
  • Alyssum. White and deep amethyst-colored alyssum to grow between the slates on the path in the back yard. I saw a yard that used it this way in a gardening magazine, and I think it might work nicely in our little yard.

    We have white alyssum self-seeding every year in the front garden, so I might be able to grab some of last fall's seed and shake it around out back. Between alyssum, thyme, moss, and pennyroyal (I'm still keeping my fingers crossed that it will come back) we'll have a fragrant green walkway punctuated with slate stepping stones.

  • Herbs: the sage, parsley, lavender, and bloody dock should all survive the winter, and I'll have to see if the oregano survives. I'd like to plant tarragon again, because ours died last winter; also want marjoram again, because it just gives me a great rush to muss it up and then smell the essential oils that are released; basil, because nothing tastes more like summer than basil, boccancini, tomato slices, a drizzle of good olive oil and a splash of basalmic vineger.
  • Something to attract fall migrating birds and winter visitors (other than the three bird feeders, one suet feeder, and water cascade). The thought of a berry-bearing bush appeals to me: there's a mountain ash in the alleyway behind our yard, and I enjoy watching the robins eat the fruit. A local organization called LEAF (Local Enhancement and Appreciation of Forests) is willing to advise, dig a hole and subsidize the cost of planting a suitable native fruiting tree.
  • Replace the thread-leafed Japanese maple with a Japanese maple species that is sturdier, taller, and has more mass to the leaves. Maybe I'll donate ours to the office rooftop garden.

Things to remember that I don't want to grow again:

  • Lamium. Too invasive for a garden that is 17ft by 20ft.
  • Creeping myrtle/perriwinkle. Ditto
  • Icelandic/Welsh poppies. Unless I want to faithfully deadhead so I don't have volunteers everywhere.
  • Yellow flowers. Dunno -- yellow just doesn't turn my crank at this point.


Saturday, January 24, 2004

No, it's not a warm winter!

Looking back, I can't believe I wrote that.

Just after New Year's, the temperature plummeted. It's been below freezing ever since: frequently below -10. So it's not the time to go out in the garden, but it is time to catch up on garden reading, my coursework for the horticulture courses I'm taking, and reading through catalogs and dreaming of spring.

Vesey's spring bulb catalog arrived in the mail on Friday, and calladiums are starting to appeal to me, even though they're high maintenance (requiring starting indoors, then move them outdoors in June, then pull up the bulbs in October). But the colors are lovely, and they work in the shade, which we've got more and more of, as the years go by and the neighboring trees continue to grow. Don't you think a bunch of these would look lovely beside a little splashing water cascade?

I'll have to finish up my garden map and post a link here so you can see what I need to replant next year. I'm also thinking of enlarging the water garden, but it could be challenging to do that without making it really attractive to the raccoons! As it is, we have been covering both front and back water gardens every night (during growing weather, when the goldfish are in the ponds)... making the pond larger could make that task more difficult. We caught a raccoon at the back pond one evening--he was just reclining beside the pond with one paw stuck in the water (well, up to his shoulder) -- gently waving his arm back and forth, looking to catch a goldfish. Very nervy, these urban raccoons!

Looking for more information about gardening? Here are two places to go: if you're in a northern clime, wander over to Kathleen Purdy's web site. For a list of blogs about gardening, check out Sheila Lennon's list of links -- lots of great information!

That's about it for tonight -- take care!