All posts by peterboroughmastergardeners

What You Cannot Live Without In Your Garden

By Suzanne Seryck, Master Gardener

I realized after downsizing my garden a few years ago, that there are certain features in a garden that I cannot live without, no matter the size of the garden. I’m not talking about plants, as that is another blog, but rather structures, elements or features, something that for me makes gardening less work and more rewarding.

The first structure would be my own shed. I did try to share my husband’s workshop for a year, but I find that I like order. Organizing my gardening tools on a peg board, brings me calm, and knowing I can go into my workshop blindfold and find the tool I want brings me a sense of peace.

Photo of the interior of owner’s shed

I don’t necessarily need a big shed, but if I have to spend a long time trying to find a tool, I end up forgetting why I needed the tool in the first place, a sure sign I am getting older. Now as you can see my husband has painted the handles of a few of my tools red, in the hope that it will help me find them when I lose them (I say when and not if). For me that doesn’t work as I tend to lay them down flat when I’m finished as opposed to sticking them in the ground handle up. I think I am now on my fourth or fifth hori hori knife and who knows how many pruners!Rain barrels, the more the better. We currently only have 4 hooked up, but are planning on installing another 4, next to these. They are located close to the vegetable garden, to make it more efficient when I water the vegetables. However, I also need a couple closer to the house for the pots and baskets on the patios, here’s hoping my husband will read this blog.

Rain water is better for the plants, not only is it warmer and softer than tap water, but it is does not contain chlorine, and for me living in Lindsay where I pay for my water usage, it saves me money. Me and my husband had a long discussion when we set these up, as he was looking at hooking them all up together and just having one tap, whilst I preferred them all to have their owns taps, so I can just put 4 watering cans, 1 under each barrel and turn them all on, saving me more time. He has attached a piece of hose to each tap, so that they reach into my watering cans.

Water barrels in author’s garden

A nursery bed. I did not realize quite how much I needed this until the second year in my current garden, when I dug up seedlings as I always do and had nowhere to put them. In my last house I had a nursery bed situated close to the vegetable garden, in my current garden it is located behind the shed, with a shade structure over the top, keeping it partly shaded. I love growing plants from seeds, finding it very fulfilling, and let most of my plants self-seed. When the seedlings come up or I see something I don’t recognize, I tend to move them to the nursery. There is nothing so rewarding when you have a space in your garden to be able to take a plant from your nursery bed, saves me money and makes me happy.

I currently have delphiniums that I was able to grow from seed, verbascum and quite a few gas plant and coneflowers. I tend to always put the coneflower seedlings in this bed (with the exception of the purple or white varieties, which normally come true from seed) as I am never sure what colour they will turn out.

Nursery bed in author’s garden

And finally an area for a leaf composter. Within 2 months of moving into my garden we had setup a leaf composter just in time for fall. The one below is about 4’ by 8’, which seems to work well in this garden. I fill with leaves in the fall, and then add green waste during the spring and summer, turning regularly. The compost is then ready to use in later summer, before I fill it up with leaves again and start over.

The most important structure in author’s garden

After moving to a new garden, you may know immediately what features and structures you need, or it may take some time to realize how important that ‘nursery bed’ was in your last garden. If you take a few minutes to think about your garden what are the most important features that make gardening more enjoyable for you?

beware! Think twice about these plants for your garden

by Rachel Burrows, Master Gardener

Plants are unable to hide or run away when faced with danger such as being eaten by a hungry rabbit. However some plants are toxic and can cause anything from mild discomfort to fatal consequences. Many of them are lovely to look at but it is wise to know which are poisonous especially if you have young children or pets.

Castor bean plant

Castor Bean Plant (Ricinus communis)

A friend phoned me and said that she had a fabulous plant with very unusual seed heads and would I like to take a look at it as she didn’t know what it was. Castor bean plants contain ricin, one of the most toxic substances known. The ricin is in the seeds which are covered with a prickly coating and are pretty shade of dark red. If the seed is swallowed whole without damaging the seed coat it will likely pass through the digestive system harmlessly. However, if it is chewed and swallowed the ricin will be absorbed within minutes and is usually fatal. One seed is enough for a deadly dose for a child and about four for an adult. My friend was very surprised and agreed to dig the plant put of her garden and dispose of it safely. These plants are often grown for their ornamental properties as they are tall and a lovely colour.

Yew

Yews (Taxus)

Again, another popular plant for hedges and often seen in gardens. The entire shrub is poisonous except for the red flesh of the berries. The oval, black seeds within the berries are highly toxic and can be fatal within a few hours of eating as few as 3 seeds. The toxin in yews is taxine which is a cardiac suppressant. I grew up on a farm and we all knew not to have yews in fields with livestock.

Rhododendron

Rhododendron

Not so hardy and a little harder to grow in this area but very common further south and in parts of England. All parts of the rhododendron are poisonous, even honey produced form the shrubs is poisonous.

Mountain laurel flower

Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia)

This shrub is a close relative to Mountain Laurel and all the green parts, twigs, blooms and pollen are toxic. It’s blooms are gorgeous but beware!

Lily of the Valley

Lily of the Valley (Convalliaria majalis)

Lily of the Valley is valued for its lovely perfume and as a ground cover, although some people see it as a menace as it does spread quickly. The entire plant is poisonous and causes the heart’s contractions to intensify.

Monkshood

Monkshood (Aconitum)

This is a stunning, tall perennial which blooms late in the season with striking purple flowers. All parts of the plant especially the roots and seeds are extremely poisonous. Eating as little as 1 gram may cause death. Even the sap can cause fingers to become numb.

Delphinium

Delphinium

Another lovely and showy perennial, but all parts of the plant are poisonous, especially the seeds. Death can be caused in as little as 6 hours.

Foxglove

Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)

Another commonly grown plant that produces the well known heart medication. However, the whole plant is poisonous and the toxin is deadly in high doses.

There are several other poisonous plants that you might want to think twice about before bringing them into your garden. Be aware of their deadly potential especially if you have young children or pets. By all means grow them if you love them, just be careful.

Did you know? There’s a garden in England dedicated to poisonous plants? Take a tour – virtually..

For further information and pictures of other poisonous garden, wild and house plants check out these websites

Ontario Poison Centre – Plants

Good Housekeeping List of Poisonous Plants Around the Home

Landscape Ontario – List of Poisonous Plants


Growing Vegetables

By Cheryl Harrison, Master Gardener

I am not a vegetable gardener but I love eating fresh vegetables so … I am a vegetable gardener.  I learned how not to grow vegetables from my wonderful Dad.  He liked to grow veggies in rows and hand weed those rows.  This meant that my sister and I were tasked with hand weeding  those never ending rows.  Despite Dad’s best efforts, this was not “fun”.

I first learned about growing vegetables in raised beds from a fellow Master Gardener.  Gardens that have few weeds, are up off the ground to help save my back and look neat and orderly and even kind of pretty … what more can you ask for?  And the best part, the plants are edible!  Since then we have installed several raised beds close  to our house for easy access to watering and harvesting.  They are made of 2” X 8’  untreated spruce lumber.  Some of my beds are 5 years old and the lumber is still going strong.  We staple chicken wire around the beds to keep out the rabbits.  The beds were filled with a combination of perlite, to minimize soil compaction, peat moss, to help retain water, and soil.  Note that peat moss is a non-renewable resource so I would rethink it’s use for the next time.  My composters are in the middle of the garden to make it easy to annually add the finished compost to the beds.  Soil needs to have organic matter replenished regularly in order to feed your plants.

We use straw in between the beds to keep the weeds down and to create clean walkways.  Hay tends to be full of weed seeds.  Shredded bark mulch is used to mulch the vegetables although straw would work for this as well. 

Grow what you eat but try something new each year too!

Beans – using an old ladder as a trellis. Author’s garden.

Some Basics

Most vegetables prefer full sun – 6-8 hours/day, regular water – 1” of moisture per week and heat.  The necessary nutrients are pulled in through water absorbed by the plant’s roots from the soil. 

Most years, we  grow cucumbers, squash, kale, beets, spinach, lettuce, garlic, parsnips, brussels sprouts and onions.  We are usually successful but not always.  New to us, this year, is turnips.  Sometimes nature throws out a challenge like an unexpected late frost or an insect pest which can quickly destroy or damage your crop.  Try to visit your garden each day to stay on top of problems and to harvest those ripe veggies. 

For more info on growing veggies in Ontario check here.  Also check the Peterborough & Area Master Gardeners resources page here for fact sheets on growing lots of different kinds of vegetables.

I am not a vegetable gardener but I have learned how to grow vegetables because I love to eat them.  Have fun and enjoy your vegetables!

Tomatoes – cages in raised bed with shredded bark mulch. Straw used in walkways.
Author’s garden.

Peat Moss

By Sharleen Pratt, Master Gardener

Peat Moss use has become a highly contentious issue, especially in Britain. The U.K. government plans to ban peat use among amateur gardeners by 2024.  With the proposed ban and a pledge to restore 35,000 hectares (86,000 acres) of peatland across the county by 2025, retailers can no longer delay the transition to peat-free compost.

A Peat Bog is layer upon layer of vegetation and it acts like a sponge that holds 20 times its own weight in water.  It is a life support for biodiversity.  It increases by 1mm per year.  Twelve metres of peat dates back to the last ice age.  Peatlands support all types of natural wildlife and native plants.

In the last 2 centuries, peat bogs have decreased by 94%, mainly in Scotland and England.  It is not an environmentally sustainable product. It used to be a major land cover in the United Kingdom.  Because of many, many years of the use of peat moss for our gardens and for fuel, less than 1% of the national peatlands remain in places like Scotland and England.

The peatlands are a wonderful natural ecosystem. They protect our climate, accumulate carbon and protect endangered species. Professor Dave Goulson, from the University of Sussex said: “Globally, peatlands store half a trillion tons of carbon, twice as much as the world’s forests.  Unearthing this precious store of carbon is a needless ecological disaster.”  They are absolutely critical in helping with flood and climate control and the protection of this unique ecosystem.

Even in Canada peatlands are carbon and climate champs!  We have about 25% of the world’s peatlands and they cover about 12% of the nation’s surface area.  They are very delicate, slow-growing ecosystems, composed of semi-decayed biomass that has accumulated for many thousands of years. They take in so much more carbon than our forests and grasslands. We emit the carbon back into the air when we put the peat moss into our gardens.

It is a nice light-weight substrate and hangs on to nutrients and is perfect for growing plants when mixed with perlite.  It is the mainstay of potting soils here and beyond and for years has been a big part of the gardening industry. Peat has long been a popular product in the Horticultural Industry as it is cheap, acts like a sponge to hold moisture and is a very good growing medium.  Fifty percent of peat moss is used by gardeners!

The Horticultural Industry are now hearing the concerns with the use of peat moss.  However, there are very few alternatives for them on the market.  Some are trying a switch to Coconut Coir, a material in the husk of the coconut.  It retains water well, up to 10 times its weight by volume.  It also contains no fungal contaminants, deters fungus gnats and doesn’t burn, which can be an issue with peat moss.  Compost is ideal but not everyone has the space to make their own and it is definitely heavier than peat moss.  Another product known as Charged Carbon acts like a sponge, removing contaminants that can prevent strong and healthy plant growth.  It is a material that comes from bamboo or feed stock.  It is heated and you are left with a carbon skeleton.  Both Coconut Coir and Charged Carbon are dramatically more efficient and environmentally responsible than the use of peat moss, however, their availability is limited and the cost of these products is much higher.  Compost is more widely available as well as other products such as leaf mold, perlite, vermiculite, and bagged manures.

Some of the industries are making simple changes, but this could take several years.  It involves understanding how the plants react to the different products, how they maintain water and watching for different growth habits.

Paul Short, President of the Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss Association says that “they have invested a lot in restoring peat lands after harvesting”, however, research has shown that peat lands take hundreds of years to be restored back to their original condition.

We could be on the same trajectory as the U.K. if we do not look after our peatlands. They are harvested not just for horticulture.  We also have oil and gas infrastructure and fire management infrastructure running through our Canadian peatlands.

Think twice about buying that low-cost bag of planting material that contains peat.  Help by encouraging our government to support the larger companies in their efforts to phase out its use.  Look at your labels, consider the use of alternatives, if possible create your own compost and be aware of what we can do to help to preserve these amazing lands.

To learn more, read this interesting article put out by Plantlife.

From a Canadian perspective, check this article from The Canadian Wildlife Federation.

The Importance of Edging

By Mary-Jane Pilgrim, Master Gardener

When it comes to maintaining a healthy garden, one of the most important elements that you need to consider is landscape edging. Options for edging range from a simple trench to high-end paving stones, and everything in between.

Edging creates clean, crisp lines between beds and other areas. It helps to keep grass from creeping into surrounding garden areas. At the same time, it prevents soil or mulch in garden beds from spilling onto the lawn whenever you water or it rains. It protects your expensive plants from the lawnmower, and your tree trunks from the string trimmer. Landscape edging also controls gravel or mulch pathways; it maintains clearly defined walking areas while keeping the path materials in place.

For me, edging has the critical job of making sure that the grass knows what its limits are, and for the garden to know the same. Once grass makes its way into a garden, it’s “game over, garden”. The grass wins, every single time.

Trench edging around author’s blooming Eastern red bud tree (Cercis canadensis)

If you’re using permanent edging such as the items described below, it’s a one-time installation for years of service. If you’re using the temporary simple trench, it should be dug/redug several times per season in order to be effective: spring, summer and late fall. I personally use a very short, flat spade and a root knife (reverse curve blade) to do this task — cutting away minimal grass so as to ensure that the garden does not get incrementally bigger each year. Ensure that the mulch, when spread, comes up to the edge of the trench bottom but doesn’t fill it. You don’t want to have any materials at the edge that grasses can grow through because they will be persistent in trying to jump the barrier. For anyone with a Stihl string timmer, I also use a Stihl Bed Edge Redefiner each spring to loosen the soil and redefine the edge on my garden beds.

There are many attractive and more permanent edging choices, if digging is not your thing:

  • Stone materials including natural fieldstone can be used, and there are some great stone tile options on the market as well.
  • Repurposed bricks can create a classic look for your landscape.
  • Plastic is affordable and easy to install due to its flexibility. The least expensive edging does look inexpensive, so invest in the best you can afford. Use the longest spikes you can find to anchor this edging into the soil.
  • Metal: Similar to the plastic edging, you can purchase flexible aluminum edging strips. They look great but at present these are quite pricey.
  • Concrete: You can purchase preformed sections of concrete landscape edging that are ready to be set in place, or you can make a simple form and create a custom edge. The downside of using concrete is that it’s pretty permanent!
  • Wood: Usually more affordable than at present, this material is easy to work with in straight lines, and adds an informal, organic look. Count on wood edging to last about 10 years. Pressure treated wood barriers are not recommended for edging vegetable gardens, and old railway ties are not recommended at all due to the leakage of harmful creosote over time.
Trench edging around author’s front yard garden

Resources

Better Homes & Gardens: Using Landscape Edging

Stihl Bed Redefiner

Family Handyman: The Best Garden and Lawn Edging Ideas and Tips

An Artist’s Favourite Tools (and a new Greenhouse!)

By Emma Murphy, Master Gardener

Over the past year or so it’s been exciting to see so many people embracing gardening in all its forms, whether that be containers, vegetables, houseplants, perennial or annual gardens, and water features. Our provincial Master Gardener Facebook site has grown from 4,000 members in March 2020 to 20,626 members today, which keeps us on our toes answering all of the questions. (I encourage you to check it out if you’re not already a member)

I like to think of every gardener as an artist and, like any artist or tradesperson, we have our favourite tools to create our art. This can be a very personal preference, often depending on the type of gardener you are (novice or experienced, annuals or perennials, plants or shrubs and trees etc.) but over time you figure out what works for you best. We had a great question online about pruners/secaturs the other day so I thought I would share some of my favourites – we have a large garden area filled with perennials, trees, and shrubs, a vegetable garden and a pond. Our new treat to ourselves this spring was a greenhouse – we’ve been talking about it for 15 years so we finally took the leap!

My Felco #7s

Pruners or secateurs (from the British – a pair of pruning clippers for use with one hand) are indispensable to the serious gardener. There are many brands on the market, but there are two primary types, so it’s important to get the ones that match your needs. Anvil pruners have a blade that pushes the plant material onto a cutting board, whereas bypass pruners have two blades that pass by each other to create a cut. Anvil pruners tend to crush soft plant tissue but, used properly, bypass pruners minimize plant damage. You can read more in Robert Pavlis’ blog on the subject here.

I only use bypass pruners; my Felco #7s are comfortable, light, efficient, and ergonomic. Why Felco? Because they are excellent quality and last forever. There are many models; many friends like the Felco #2s, but there are some designed for left handed people (Felco #9), people with small hands, or people like me that want to minimize hand strain, which is the focus of Felco #7. It provides me with hand and wrist protection, and optimizes the force exerted by the revolving handle. I should probably buy shares in this company. 

Hori Hori Knife

I was introduced to this tool by my fellow Master Gardeners, and now I understand why it’s a favourite . Made in Japan, the hori hori knife is a cross between a knife and a trowel, and can serve multiple functions, including dividing perennials or planting. Traditionally used in Japan to collect specimens for bonsai (hori means “digging”), the knife has a rust-resistant steel blade with a serrated edge on one side and a sharpened edge on the other. About 12 inches overall, it has a hardwood handle and comes with a belt sheath. I have only ever seen these at Lee Valley, but unfortunately they don’t sell them anymore. The closest equivalent I see online is the Nisaku NJP650 Japanese Hori Garden Landscaping Digging Tool with Stainless Steel Blade & Sheath.

A Drain Spade

There are lots of different spades out there, so take the time to find one that works for you. Your height, the weight of the tool, what you need to use it for, and ergonomic considerations should all be taken into account. I have both shovels and spades – shovels tend to have longer handles and a more curved blade than spades – but once I used my drain spade I realized it was going to be my favourite. It’s heavy but I love the long blade for getting deep into the earth, and the narrowness for getting into tight spots. I have actually managed to dig the full taproot of a mature lupin and transplant it (and have it survive) using this spade, and that is an accomplishment in itself.

Great Gloves

Gloves are a very personal item of clothing for gardeners, but since this is my blog I’ll let you know my favourites are the West County gloves I can get from Lee Valley (the orange ones below) and the Noble Outfitter gloves I just picked up at the TSC Store. Many people like the nitrile and latex gloves, especially for fine gardening work like pruning, but they are too hot for my hands. I am pretty tough on my gloves, so it’s normal for me to go through a few pairs each season.

Collapsible Garden Bags

A variation on traditional English ‘tip bags’ and often called kangaroo bags, these lightweight, collapsible bags are great for collecting weeds and waste (and leaves when that time comes). They can be collapsed and stored away easily when not being used, and who doesn’t like space-saving things! I have had several of these bags, but I am not sure where I got these particular ones. They do have them at Lee Valley (or give Google a try). I like them better than the plastic tubs because (well, plastic!), they are lightweight, and I can maneuver them into tight spaces.

Our New Greenhouse

We’ve talked about this for 15+ years and since we can’t travel, this year’s travel budget went towards a new greenhouse. This is a Rion Prestige® 8 ft. x 12 ft. Clear Twin-wall Panels Greenhouse/, ordered in March and received in late May. Right now we are just experimenting with our new ‘tool’, trying to grow some warm season vegetables in the greenhouse, raised beds, and regular vegetable beds to see which ones work best.

It is very important to do your research if you are thinking about a greenhouse, as it’s a big investment and you want to order one that meets your needs (are you trying to grow year round? extend your season in the spring and fall?). I’ll report back later in the year on our experience this season.

A Wide Brimmed Hat, Bandanna, Sunscreen, Bug Spray, and Towel

Last but not least the essentials for all gardeners – a nice wide brimmed hat and sunscreen to protect you from the sun’s rays, bug spray, and a towel to wipe off all that sweat – gardening can be a great workout.

One final hint – you may notice that most of my tools are bright colours. If you – like me – tend to ‘lose’ tools in the garden, or the compost, or the leaf pile, or under a plant, you’ll want to look for tools in nice bright colours so that when your husband turns out the compost in the spring he can say ‘hey honey I found your garden bandit’. That reminds me – I need to put some paint on my hori hori knives!

Happy Gardening! 

Please note: I do not receive any compensation for mentioning where you can get these items

The Intricate Nature of Trees

By Laura Gardner, Master Gardener in Training

I first became aware of Suzanne Simard and her forestry research through an online TED talk that I watched as part of an arboriculture course that I had taken. The talk was engaging, enlightening, and inspiring. In it she spoke about the interconnectedness of and the collaborative, communicative, and nurturing nature of different tree species and how networks of mycorrhizal fungi serve as connectors between them. These mycorrhizal fungi, located within a tree’s roots, enable the transfer of nutrients and help them to thrive.

When I saw a year later that she was to publish a book as a follow-up, I jumped at the chance to read it. Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest (Knopf, 2021) not only covers her scientific research but it is also part memoir in that the author weaves her own personal life story within the narrative. We hear how at an early age she had become in tune with and respectful of the forests, influenced by her grandfather, who had practiced logging in a sustainable manner. She would go on to work for logging companies as well as conduct research for the British Columbia Forest Service, trying to determine why certain conifer species grown for harvesting were not thriving and whether eliminating certain tree species would contribute to a more productive end result or be a hindrance.

Simard was skeptical that this long-standing “free to grow” policy was sound practice for the long-term survival of the forests. Her eventual research findings would conflict and effecting change would prove to be difficult and was met with resistance. The view that trees were in strict competition with each other and that best results would be derived though eliminating “unproductive” or “devalued” trees such as Alder and Birch from the plantations could no longer be supported. It would not be easy to convince policy writers to change course and see the more collaborative, symbiotic nature between the different species and the importance of mycorrhizae – that eliminating certain deciduous species actually made the conifers more vulnerable to Armillaria root disease or insect pests such as the Mountain Pine Beetle. Simard would also show that the sharing of resources extended not only between parent and offspring trees, but also between genetically unrelated trees.

Simard demonstrates the disadvantages of developing monoculture environments in the forestry industry but her research should also give much food for thought for those working in urban forestry, landscaping, agriculture, or even at the individual homeowner level. The common
practice of planting the same kinds of species or the isolated planting of an individual species should be reconsidered more widely. These practices lead to less ecological diversity and may reduce the potential for a planted tree’s optimum growth. Perhaps we should consider planting certain species of trees together or in close proximity in order to foster the underground mycorrhizal networks that help strengthen and support them. Perhaps for planting consideration is an alder and a pine or a fir and a birch combination?

Reading this book will change the way you think about trees and you will want to continue to follow Simard’s research. Learn more about the Mother Tree Project.

Pruning Tips for Spring Flowering Shrubs

By Lois Scott, Master Gardener

Spring finally arrived and is now quickly passing, as are the blossoms on spring blooming shrubs such as Forsythia, Lilac and Bridlewreath Spiraea.  Once these shrubs are finished blooming, we can ensure that next year’s blossoms will be abundant by pruning them effectively.

These shrubs flower best on the wood that grew the previous summer and they benefit from some yearly pruning done right after blooming and before new growth begins. The general idea is to prune out some of the oldest wood each year so that your shrub is renewed over time and does not become overgrown and underperforming.  Along with the following tips you should always prune any material that is dead, diseased or dying when you find it.

Lee Reich, the author of “The Pruning Book” recommends the following pruning process.

  • Cut to within 1 ft (or less) of the ground some of the oldest stems.
  • To keep your clump to a desired size, selectively cut some of the oldest stems from around the edge of your clump.
  • If desired shorten some of the remaining older stems.  This will keep your shrub short enough that blossoms will be more accessible.
  • If you have just planted a new shrub this spring, the recommendation is not to do any pruning while plants are young.  Just mulch, water and weed your shrub, pruning only material that is dead, diseased or damaged.  Pruning stimulates growth and for a young shrub it is important for the energy to go towards root growth.
  • Use loppers and hand pruners rather than hedge trimmers.

I agree with Lee when he says “it’s best to use your pruning tools to coax a bush along in the direction of its natural inclinations” rather than trying to contain naturally arching shrubs into ‘balls’.  Planting shrubs in locations where they have room to grow into their natural shape is preferable to me, however pruning can be a creative pursuit so each to their own!

Resources

It is Time to Prune Lilac, Forsythia and Other Early Spring Flowering Shrubs

Penn State Extension: A Prime Time to Prune!

Gardening is a Privilege

By Anica James, Master Gardener in Training

It’s May 24, and according to the Farmer’s Almanac, now is the calendar time people in the Peterborough area are normally getting ready to sow seeds, plant vegetable seedlings, and put new plants in the ground because all danger of frost has past. But that’s only if you are privileged enough to own space to do so and have enough disposable income to spend on plants and gardening supplies.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word privilege means “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group”. Historically, having a large beautiful garden was saved for the wealthy and elite, because they were the ones who could afford the land, exotic plants, and an entire staff of gardeners. Unfortunately not much has changed, but thankfully more resources are becoming available to those who might not have the materials but wish to garden.

Although increased property ownership in the past century has allowed for most homeowners to have some slice of yard space for themselves’ to work on, it still costs a lot. Realtors even suggest that homeowners need to spend approximately 10% of the property value on landscaping. Gardening is still a very private and solo act and everyone has their own vision and version of what the “perfect garden” looks like. Maybe you’re privileged enough to be able to hire a gardener or landscaping company to maintain your property and get that bowling green lawn which costs money to water, fertilize, and mow it. Having a garden bed and maintaining said garden bed is also a privilege because it costs money to fill it with plants (whether they are annuals, perennials or shrubs), in which most are non-native and many can be detrimental to the natural environment.

Buying plants, soil, mulch, seeds and seed starting kits also costs money. The average 1 gallon potted perennial costs $15, and if you follow the rules of design you just learned about on Pinterest which says you need “at least three of every plant to form nice clumps and groupings”, the cost of gardening really starts to add up. Next time you go to a garden centre to buy a non-native Hydrangea in a 2 Gallon pot for $59.99, think to yourself what it must be like for someone who cannot afford that. Recently I was at a local grocery store looking at plants–in which I had already loaded my cart with over $100 worth of colourful annuals adorning cheap plastic pots–and I overheard a woman my age say to whoever she was speaking with on the phone “I really want this lavender plant because my therapist said it would help calm and ground me, but I really need milk and eggs to make breakfast for my kid.” Although I do not have children, I have been in a similar position where I really wanted a $5 plant and knew that I couldn’t afford it at the time. This is the reality for many people I know, the working poor, but they still want to be able to have access to nature that will bring them joy. Plants are supposed to help relax us, not stress us out.

There are still ways for people who do not have enough money or space to do a bit of gardening, thanks to seed sharing, plant swapping, and learning through books or the internet, but even so, it is a struggle for many in our community. Consider the balancing act and constant budget decisions that less privileged people in our city must make every day. Shouldn’t everyone have the right to access home grown produce and beautiful flowers?

So how can those of us who are fortunate enough to have time, money and space to garden change and/or make a positive impact this growing season?

As you get your vegetable plots ready for the season, if you have the space and can afford to, consider growing extra vegetables and herbs that you can donate to a local food bank or a less privileged neighbour on your street. Or consider renting out your front lawn to other people who want to install a garden, like what they have done in Charlottetown, PEI https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/prince-edward-island/pei-garden-share-program-1.6005297

The flowers of a potato plant, a practical and pretty addition to any garden bed that doesn’t cost a lot of money and rewards you with delicious food. Photo by Anica James.

Thankfully here in Peterborough we are fortunate enough to have over 40 community gardens, but there could still be more. If you have time to give, volunteering at a community garden has many benefits to help you grow in multiple ways. Or do you know of a place in your neighbourhood where you would like to see a garden installed? Local organization Nourish has great resources to help you get started. https://nourishproject.ca/factsheets

Reconsider the manicured look of popular garden plants and switch them out for something that is going to be more beneficial for you, wildlife, your community and the environment in the long run.  Incorporate more native plants and collect seeds to share with others in the community. GreenUP Ecology Park is a great place to buy native plants and learn about local greening initiatives.

Remember: Gardens should be both practical and pretty while always serving a purpose. If the pandemic has taught us anything, we need to start being more empathetic and finding ways to grow through this together as a community.

St. Luke’s Community Garden located in East City has 18 individual allotment plots and a few plots for volunteers to grow produce, which is then donated to the Food Cupboard at the church. Photo by Anica James.

Native Plants: Guilt

By Suzanne Seryck, Master Gardener

Like a lot of other gardeners during this time of COVID, I have taken advantage of the many, many gardening presentations, seminars, talks, and webinars that have all been available online–not to mention catching up on my reading. The two books that I am currently reading are both by Douglas Tallamy and have been recommended numerous times. They are ‘Bringing Nature Home’ and ‘Nature’s Best Hope’. Both are packed full of facts and figures; the first one providing a list of recommended native plants as well as basic information regarding the insects that are eaten by bird and wildlife. The second book, which is one of the main reasons why I like it so much actually has a plan (or approach as the book calls it) for turning our home gardens into wildlife habitats and extending that approach to create corridors preserving our native wildlife.

What I have noticed among the many presentations, seminars, etc. is the focus on native plants, native wildlife preservation, sustainable and organic gardening and environmental gardening.  I am definitely all in favour of this shift; in fact I believe that this has been too long coming. We, as a whole, are definitely a little late to the table. Now this is just my personal opinion but I feel that as a nation, as a people, we do seem to be forever running behind a problem trying to come up with solutions only when the situation becomes critical!

I have to admit that I am as much at fault as the next person. My garden is only approximately 40% native plants, the rest being ornamental. Although if you count bulbs and annuals, that figure could drop down to about 30%.

But do not panic just yet, Douglas Tallamy does not recommend that we ‘adopt a slash and burn policy towards the aliens that are now in your garden’, thank goodness for that. What he does suggest is two-fold, if an alien plant dies replace it with a native plant that has the same characteristics, and two, create new beds with native plants if you have space and if not, dig up some of your lawn.

So here is my dilemma, and guilt. I have no more space to expand and only a very narrow patch of lawn in the back garden for my husband, dogs and future grandchildren. So I either have to wait for something to die, which is not happening fast enough to outweigh my guilt, or dig up a plant replacing it with a native. This is not quite as easy as you think. I have walked around my garden a number of times looking for plants to give away to plant sales or neighbours. The problem is the less plants you have the more each plant tends to have its own story, your mother or good friend gave it to you, you’ve inherited it from someone you care about, the plant reminds you of a certain time, the list and stories go on.

Photo of backyard in author’s garden showing on the left the narrow strip of lawn

One of my favourite native plants is culver’s root. It always and consistently has the most insect activity of any plant in the garden. I already have two. But would I want to dig up the rose bush that my mother bought me because coincidentally it has the same name as my grandmother and replace it with a third culver’s root?

What about ironweed? I love this tall, stately plant covered in late summer with purple flowers. Again I already have two, but would I want to dig up the delphinium that a neighbour gave me 15 years ago, that had apparently been growing in her yard for 30 years prior to that and replace with an ironweed?

Picture of Ironweed in author’s backyard

What about all the daylilies I have spent years collecting, each one unique and individual, or the peonies I bought from my last garden, one in each colour? Now, I understand that maybe not all of my ornamentals have the same level of memories, and that, yes, they would be going to good homes. But it is a difficult decision, I want to increase the natives in my garden, I want to do what is right and sustainable, and I want to increase the wildlife in my garden. I have even given talks myself encouraging gardeners to add at least one native plant to their garden each year. But do I really have time to wait; my guilt levels and motivation levels want me to act now, to take a stand, to encourage by action.

As Douglas Tallamy concludes: ‘Our success is up to each one of us individually. We can each make a measurable difference almost immediately by planting a native nearby. As gardeners and stewards of our land, we have never been so empowered – and the ecological stakes have never been so high.’