Category Archives: Advice

Becoming the Caretaker of your Garden

By Suzanne Seryck, Master Gardener

I first heard the term to be ‘caretaker of your garden’ at a permaculture course a few years ago. It has resonated with me ever since and has changed both the way in which I garden and also the way that I perceive my garden. Being the “caretaker of your garden” means that while you own the land that your garden is on, it is only temporary. You are, in fact, simply looking after that piece of land for a relatively short period of time before passing it on.

For me, being the caretaker of my garden makes me consider the longevity of the garden, what takes away from the health of the garden and what gives back to the garden; how to feed not just my family but also the wildlife whilst providing safe habitats; how to make the garden more self-sustainable reducing my time spent pruning, weeding, and imposing my unnatural demands on the garden thus allowing myself more time to simply enjoy the garden. For most of us, we are already doing the groundwork for this change already–it is simply a shift in the way we view ownership of our garden, or more specifically, the plot of land the garden sits on.

The following are some of the practices that I follow:

  • A healthy garden always starts with healthy soil. I amend my soil annually with leaf compost. I have 2 large leaf composters in my back garden which I fill with bags of leaves I collect from neighbours. I also mulch up approximately 20 bags of leaves and spread these liberally over my vegetable and perennial gardens in the fall.

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  • I cut back very little in my garden in the fall mainly just anything that is diseased. In the spring I cut everything up into 1-2 inch pieces and drop them back on the garden. This also acts as a mulch as well as amending the soil.
  • Plants that have multiple uses are important to me. This may be because I have a small garden; multiple functions can include fix nitrogen, use as a fertilizer, be edible or medicinal etc. as well as aesthetically pleasing.
  • Including vegetable plants in the perennial bed. I will often do this if I run out of room in my vegetable beds, however a lot of vegetable plants have amazing foliage and are great to line paths and place in the front of beds.
  • Recently I have made efforts to increase diversity in my small garden, increasing the number of native plants. Native plants are generally hardier, more adapted to our climate and require less maintenance; they also tend to attract more wildlife and pollinators.
  • I try to water as little as possible using rain barrels as much as I can.  I must admit that any plants that do require more water, or in fact more maintenance of any kind, tend to be replaced fairly quickly.ironweed suzanne

For anyone who has not heard of permaculture, it is a set of guidelines, principles and practices for sustainable living and land use. When you narrow down permaculture to your home garden, you are in effect looking at a more sustainable, natural method of gardening mimicking that found in nature to create a cohesive garden, in which all elements benefit, nurture and interconnect with each other. Whilst that does sound like a fairly lofty aspiration, the good news is that just by implementing or adding a couple of permaculture practices can have a significant impact on your garden, but that sounds like a blog for another day.

For me the term ‘being caretaker of your garden’ and the reasoning behind it align with my passion and concern regarding climate change and environmentalism. Whilst the changes I make may only have a small impact these type of changes can add up and often lead to something bigger.

For further information on permaculture:

Halloween Gardening

By Christine Freeburn, Master Gardener

What can you do in the garden now, with Hallowe’en just around the corner?

DSCN7053Plant garlic! Yes, this is the time of year to plant garlic for harvesting next summer. You can probably still find garlic bulbs at farmers markets. Buy locally grown garlic, not product of China. Separate the cloves from the bulb and plant at a depth of 3 times the height of the bulb in rows in the garden. Cover two-thirds deep with soil and then top off with straw or mulch. For full details, see this fact sheet on growing garlic.

DSCN5616Plant tulips! Although it may be too late to plant daffodils, you can still pop some tulips into the ground, even up to freeze up. Squirrels do love tulips, but if you plant them deep enough (6 to 8 inches), use hen manure or bone meal, and cover up the bare spot with leaves or mulch, you should deter them. Check this link for more spring bulb information.

Cut some hydrangea blooms! Hydrangeas have been tinged by the frost and many are lovely shades of pink. Bring some into your home and place in an empty vase and they will dry naturally.

Cut back some perennials. Putting your garden to bed in the fall, gives you a head start in spring. It also gets you into the garden to pull any weeds that have sprung up and may be going to seed. Cutting back daylilies, iris and hosta can tidy up the garden, but I recommend not chopping everything down. Cut back any seed heads that you don’t want to reseed. Leave your grasses and sedums standing. They will help to hold the snow in the garden which helps to insulate the frozen ground, which is a good thing.

DSCN4263Don’t rake! Mulch those leaves into your lawn with your lawn mower. It’s easier on your back and is so good for the lawn. Use your leaf blower to mulch into your flower beds too.

What To Do With All Those Fall Leaves?

by Judy Bernard, Master Gardener

What to do with leaves? It used to be that one would rake the leaves, put them into bags to be collected by the municipality, where they would often be put into landfill or composting. They are a rich source of organic material for the garden that helps retain moisture in the soil.

I have a friend that collects leaves that fall on her lawn, bags them and uses them the next spring in her vegetable garden. They first mulch them into the lawn, then, what remains is collected into bags and stored until spring. The leaves are spread between the rows of her vegetable garden in the spring and watered down. When the tender vegetable plants have sprouted, she then uses the leaves to mulch around all of her veggies. By fall there are no more leaves, just rich organic material in the soil for next years garden.

The leaves can also be used to protect tender perennials by covering them with a blanket for the winter. Indeed, mulch all of your perennial beds with leaves in the fall to protect them from winter extremes. And don’t be in a hurry to uncover them in the spring.

I’ve included a couple of links to give you other ideas of how to use this valuable resource.

Things to do with fall leaves

What to do with fall leaves

Waiting for top soil and sod for our new home, I’ve “planted” pots with my shrubs, tulip tree and peonies into the fill along the side of the house. I collected some bags of leaves along the roadside and have mulched the pots for the winter.

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Pot, eh?

By Mary-Jane Parker, Master Gardener

This past growing season was my first foray ever into growing marijuana. I tried this because I want to attempt to make a salve that I have been purchasing locally for arthritis (which, by the way, seems to work for me!)

marijuana-101796_960_720I started my seeds inside under lights. When I planted the seedlings outside, one went into the ground in my garden and the other went into a 5 gallon bucket with holes drilled in the bottom. The bucket plant went into my little greenhouse.

I did not fertilize either plant regularly – maybe 3 times the whole summer – but I did water the potted plant pretty well daily. I gather from other growers that I should have fertilized a lot more and then held back on the fertilizing later in season to clear chemicals out of the plants.

I thought this would be a good way to test growing techniques – greenhouse as opposed to outdoors but in the end it was not. I had planted 2 varieties that had very different characteristics. One had a beautiful bluish, reddish tinge to it and the other was twice as bushy.

Both plants ended up being well over 5 feet tall with lots of flowers. I cut them down before first frost and hung them in the greenhouse with shade cloth draped overhead.

So now, I am not sure if all the work was worth the effort and I haven’t even made the salve yet. I don’t know how the hippies from the 60’s and 70’s did it. I was told to trim off all the leaves before I hung the plants. That took an incredibly long time. And apparently I will have to trim the dried flowers off in the very near future. The marijuana plants themselves are kind of interesting architecturally but they stink. Birds for the most part avoided them and I don’t think I saw even one bee on them and I have lots of bees here. At any rate, I will make the salve and reserve judgement until then. We have to try new things, right?

Links:

How to grow marijuana outdoors: a beginner’s guide

How to Grow Cannabis in 10 Easy Steps

Master Gardeners of Ontario Information Sheet: How to grow Cannabis

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Adding Diversity to Garden Design

By Suzanne Seryck, Master Gardener

In June this year, I was sitting with my son on the deck looking at the backyard. He asked me why I had so much grass in the garden. Now, he is definitely not a gardener, so I was a little confused until I realized he was referring to all of the daylily leaves. I felt it my duty to point out the stunning delphiniums, peonies, irises, and lupins which were all in bloom. I also tried to explain that in another month or so the garden will be a riot of colour when all the daylilies and coneflowers started flowering. Daylilies have always been my favourite plants; they are hardy, drought tolerant, low maintenance and beautiful in bloom. See our blog post from July 22 describing how daylilies are the perfect perennial. I probably have at least fifty different varieties, all of which I bought over from my last garden four years ago. But as I sat there looking at the garden I did wonder if maybe I should add more diversity.

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Author’s garden in late spring

Shortly after, I was watching my new favourite garden show on Netflix, ‘Big Dreams, Small Spaces’ with Monty Don. If you have not heard of him, Monty Don is something close to a hero to most British gardeners. In this episode, he was relaying a gardening principle to the couple that were designing their new backyard.  He mentioned that for simplicity and cohesiveness “no garden needs more than seven different plants”.  I was trying to remember where the back button was on the remote as I wasn’t sure I’d heard correctly, but he did partially redeem himself when he clarified that statement by saying that you do not have to take this too literally, but that a good garden can be made with just seven different plants. My current garden design is more of an English cottage garden, informal with little space between plants and if I was going to add more diversity this summer, I would definitely have more than seven different plants.

I spent this summer with pen and paper in hand walking around the garden, asking myself if I really needed 20 different variations of pink daylily, some of which even I struggled to tell apart or did I need the same daylily variety in four different places in the garden. I also noticed the daylily blooms had very few insects compared to the spectacular activity around the native plants. I made copious notes in my notebook and labelled many plants I wanted to move or give away. Because of a rising concern for environmentalism and climate change, I also wanted this to be reflected more in my garden. To do this I decided I needed to do the following:

  • Plant more native plants. I have collected seed from most of my native plants including swamp milkweed, culver’s root and liatris and will use these to fill in over the next few years.
  • Add more edibles to the perennial garden. I tend to edge with swiss chard, beets or cardoon. I don’t actually eat the cardoon but I love the foliage on the plant.
  • Choose more plants that have multiple functions, i.e. yarrow which attracts insects, is drought tolerant, is a nutrient accumulator bringing nutrients from deep in the soil and storing them in the leaves, has attractive flowers in many colors, and can be used as a manure tea.
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Author’s garden in summer

I’m excited for next year to see the changes I’ve made. I’m hoping that I have still kept the basic structure of the garden design with the emphasis on the summer color whilst adding more variety, especially pollinator and native plants. I learned this summer that a garden design does not have to be static; it can evolve as your values and beliefs evolve.

The design of your garden can be very personal, ever changing, reflecting who you are. For me it is somewhere where I feel at peace with the world–there is nothing I like more than taking a cup of tea out to the garden in the morning and just sitting and looking around.

September in the Garden

By Mary-Jane Pilgrim, Master Gardener

Fall is in the air.  You can see the days getting shorter, and feel that the temperatures are cooling.  The Canada Geese are grouping; ready to make their noisy trip south.  The boats and camping trailers are also heading south.  The monarchs will soon be leaving us for sunnier climates in Mexico.  It’s that time of year where every living thing in our region starts preparing for the colder seasons to come.monarch2015

In the garden, fall is a great time for planting, dividing, weeding, mulching and planning for spring renovations.  The soil is warm, the days are cooler and the rain is usually frequent.  These three items are a big part of what is needed to get new plantings well established before the snow flies.

Fall Planting

Now is the time to plant buy and plant spring-flowering bulbs like tulips, daffodils, allium, snowdrops and crocus.  Shop early for the best selection.  If you are plagued by squirrels, know that they do not go after daffodils — so fill your basket with these instead of some of the more delicious bulbs like tulips that may just make a tasty snack.

Now is also a great time to plant late season annuals like pansies, kale and cabbage for garden bed interest or for front door planters.  It’s also prime tree and shrub planting time.  Water well until freeze-up.

Fall Dividingrudbeckia

September is a great time to divide some of those perennials that have outgrown their space, or that you’d like to share with others.  Watch for obvious division points for hosta, black-eyed susans, coneflower, iris and daylilies.  Plants will have enough time to establish roots in their new homes if this splitting and replanting is done now.  After splitting, cut back any unnecessary leaves or flower stalks from these to make the transition a little easier for these perennials.

Fall Weeding

Many of us have lost interest in this task by now.  However, if you consider that every weed that remains in your beds is likely to go to seed, and that most weeds carry hundreds of seeds, it’s totally in your best interest to keep those beds as weed-free as possible.  For me, this includes deadheading any self-seeding perennials as well.

Fall Mulching

Add some compost, and a two- to three-inch layer of mulch to beds to get them ready for winter. It’s like putting the comforter on the bed.  You can use garden-centre mulch for this, but I have a neighbour with mature maple trees that provide all of the leaves that I can use.  Leaves are great insulator, and best of all, they’re completely free!

Spring Renovation Planning

Lastly, fall is a great time for you to assess areas of the garden which may need renovation next spring.  I sometimes draw maps of the different plants in my garden beds, and it’s not uncommon to see the words “remove”, “divide” and “move” scrawled across these drawings. You may think that you’ll remember all of this next spring, but I have my bets against you on this one!

Here’s to some great fall preparation to make next spring just a little bit more organized and successful.

‘Weeding’ Through Gardening Websites

by Emma Murphy, Master Gardener

Gardening resources on the internet are plentiful but can quickly become overwhelming for both novice and experienced gardeners. Over the past year I have noticed certain websites that continually show up at the top of my search results; these sites are “gardening content farms”, a term I learned from fellow Master Gardener Cathy Kavassalis (@CathyKavassalis). A content farm (or content mill) is a website that provides limited pay to large numbers of writers to generate a wide range of (user-generated) content which is often specifically designed to maximize page views in order to generate advertising revenue.

Examples include gardeningknowhow.com, gardendesign.com, thespruce.com, theflowerexpert.com. Many have names that entice you into their site (like a fly to a spider’s web). The websites may contain lots of information about gardening, but it appears to be mostly collected from other sites or produced by writers with minimal gardening knowledge. As Cathy puts it “The quality is variable but the sites are created to ensure they show up early in Internet searches to generate ad revenue.”

For a while I actually didn’t notice the content farm sites because I have an adblocker program (so I didn’t get the ads). Once Cathy mentioned the sites in response to a question on our Master Gardeners of Ontario Facebook site, I consciously looked and was shocked by the number of ads that had been blocked when I clicked on the links – 6, 9, even 15 or more.peonies

So I purposefully put “types of peonies” in the subject line in a Google search, keeping the topic very general. First link up is from gardendesign.com. Some good information there, but 8 ads blocked. And of course first of all I get a pop-up wanting me to sign up for their newsletter (to sell me more stuff).GardenDesign.pngThis is where you have to be an engaged researcher. Often the author may own a business (for example, one that sells expensive peonies); this doesn’t mean the information isn’t good, but their primary motivation in writing the article is to drive you to their website, or for you to share their article with others to increase their profile. Other sites engage writing generalists to search the internet for information on a topic and repost it on the site, which could mislead you into thinking they wrote the article (usually there is an attribution to the source at the bottom of the page in small lettering).

The content provided on these sites are not a bad place to begin your searches, but the quality varies significantly, as these are not generally writers with gardening knowledge. Also if they are reworking other (maybe erroneous) information, they are simply continuing to spread misinformation.

I offer three suggestions to help you find gardening information on the web:

If you are doing a Google search focus your search with as many key terms as you can so you get what you need, often bypassing the gardening content farms. For example, typing in “ontario gladiolus bulbs overwintering” brings up good local answers from sites such as TorontoGardens (with Helen and Sara Battersby), Landscape Ontario, an Agriculture Canada publication on gladiolus, and Toronto Master Gardeners. Then the aggregate (garden farm) sites follow, as they have more general information.

Rather than Googling for information, use some of the great resources available on Facebook and Twitter. Master Gardeners of Ontario, Ontario Horticultural Association (OHA) (through GardenOntario), and many regional Master Gardener and OHA groups are on Facebook and Twitter – it really is a terrific way to learn (and make new gardening friends). Also there are many good gardening websites to be found (really another entire post) – look for information with that provided by a government agency (e.g. OMAFRA, USDA, etc.), respected horticulturalists, a botanic garden and/or arboretum, a university, a Cooperative Extension services associated with a university (USA), or a wildflower or native gardening society.

Subscribe (or follow) excellent gardening blogs – find those that match your interests and where the writers are passionate gardeners who want to share their knowledge. You are on one now 9a2684c4213171476e13732af3b26537 so sign up to get notifications of new posts (every week). Other blogs I like are The Impatient Gardener, Savvy Gardening, and  Three Dogs in a Garden. Ask friends for recommendations. You can also reach out to me on Twitter.

Filtering through all the information is challenging, but hopefully this blog gives you some tools to separate the wheat from the chaff. Happy Gardening!PMG