Category Archives: Garden Design

Dreams of Spring Gardens

By Emma Murphy, Peterborough Master Gardener

It’s really cold out. I mean REALLY cold. -25 degrees Celsius cold. With lots of snow. And wind. And ice. So it’s got me dreaming of springtime and things that are green and not white.

So indulge me while I research and share with you some of my favourite English gardens in southern England that we plan to visit later this spring. Hoping things improve to celebrate my aunt’s 95th birthday and fulfill a long held dream to visit England in late springtime. While I’m planting many more natives in my messy “English-style” garden, I’m still fascinated with the diversity, structure, and composition of more formal English gardens.

Here’s my top 5 ‘not to be missed South England gardens” – there are (of course) more on our list but these are the key ones. Some of these may be familiar to you, and some not…

Hoping that these profiles help ease the January blues. Since I’ve haven’t been there yet these are photos taken by others. If you have been lucky enough to visit these gardens please share your photos in the comments.

1. Great Dixter House and Gardens, Rye, East Sussex

Great Dixter is an historic house, a garden, a centre of education, and a place of pilgrimage for horticulturists from across the world. Certainly it’s the one garden that has the highest reputation with overseas visitors.

Surprisingly, it’s maintained this reputation for many decades, even through a change of hands. Initially famous through its owner Christopher Lloyd (1921-2006) – who lived in the half-timbered fifteenth-century house all his life – Lloyd (or “Christo” as he was known) was not only a gifted and artistic gardener but a prolific and knowledgeable writer whose articles and books inspired a generation of gardeners.

Today, the gardens are managed by the Great Dixter Charitable Trust and Fergus Garrett, who became head gardener in 1992. I was lucky enough to hear him speak at a Toronto Master Gardeners’ Technical Update a few years ago.

The two gardeners had a creative working relationship, both loving plants and their combinations, and even though Lloyd is gone more than 50,000 visitors a year find Great Dixter as vibrant a garden as ever, and full of things to learn from.

This is an ‘arts and crafts’ style garden, with topiary, a long border, an orchard and a wild flower meadow. The planting is profuse, yet structured, and has featured many bold experiments of form, colour and combination.

On the grounds are three 18th-century oast houses, under a common roof, and a 15th-century barn. Find out more here.

2. Sissinghurst Castle Gardens, Sissinghurst, Kent

Located in beautiful Kent, Sissinghurst Castle Garden was created by poet and writer Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson, author and diplomat in 1930 and developed over 30 years with some notable head gardeners.

Designated Grade I on Historic England’s register of historic parks and gardens, it’s among the most famous gardens in England. They transformed a farmstead of “squalor and slovenly disorder” into one of the world’s most influential gardens.

Following her death in 1962, the estate was donated to the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty. It is one of the Trust’s most popular properties, with more than 200,000 visitors each year (and I hope to be one of them!).

There are a number of specialty gardens, including the Rose Garden, the (famous) White Garden, the South Cottage Garden, the Herb Garden, the Nuttery, the Lime Walk (Spring Garden), the Delos Garden (Mediterranean garden), Moat Walk, the Orchard, and the Purple Border. Learn more here.

3. Hidcote Gardens, Hidcot Bartim, Gloucestershire

Hidcote is a world-famous garden located in the north Cotswolds (not far from [the original] Stratford-upon-Avon). Created by the talented horticulturist Major Lawrence Johnston (and inspired by the work of designers Alfred Parsons and Gertrude Jekyll), yew, holly and beech hedges define a series of outdoor garden rooms – the Circle, the Fuchsia garden , the Bathing Pool Garden, the Red Borders and the steps up to the two gazebos. The outbreak of the Great War (1914 – 1918) in which Lawrence fought, suspended progress.

You might recognize the narrow-leaved lavender, Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote’, and Penstemon ‘Hidcote Pink’, as developed by Johnston. Many of the plants found growing in the garden were collected from Johnston’s many plant-hunting trips to faraway places so it will be the perfect source for gardening inspiration. More history here.

4. Gravetye Manor, East Grinstead, Sussex

Created in 1885 at the former home of William Robinson, who championed naturalistic planting, the site today is a prestigious hotel, but visitors can still enjoy the gardens which are curated and cared for by Tom Coward (who trained with Fergus Garrett at Great Dixter).

An oasis of calm with over 35 acres of beautiful grounds, Robinson created a landscape that celebrates nature rather than controls it. He also introduced the idea of the modern mixed border and popularized common place items such as secateurs and hose pipes. In many ways Robinson created modern gardening as we know it.

Some of his most influential books include The Wild Garden and The English Flower Garden, which remains the bestselling gardening book ever printed. He also ran several gardening journals such as The Garden and Garden Illustrated.

Robinson made Gravetye “the paradigm in which house, garden, fields, and forest are united in a pastoral work of art as quintessentially English as a painting by Constable,” wrote landscape designer Elizabeth Barlow Rogers. Some ideas on how to create the Gravetye look here.

5. Wisley Gardens, Wisley, Surrey

Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Garden Wisley is operated by the RHS and is a beautiful garden with romantic half-timbered Tudor-style buildings. Unlike many English gardens, the soil is mainly acid sand which is poor in nutrients and fast draining.

There is a canal designed by Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe, a rock garden, formal and walled gardens by Lanning Roper, a country garden by Penelope Hobhouse and long borders by Piet Oudolf.

Then there are long herbaceous borders, the alpine gardens, the model gardens, soft fruit garden, rose-garden, summer garden, winter garden and woodland garden, a fruit field, glasshouses and an arboretum.

This garden is home to some of the largest plant collections anywhere in the world, with constantly evolving planting schemes to inspire visitors. In June 2021, Hilltop – The Home of Gardening Science opened at Wisley so I’m looking forward to exploring this impressive exhibition space and three beautiful new gardens.

Well that’s it for this blog – I hope you feel inspired to explore gardens wherever you live or travel – they are so many incredible gardens here in Canada and the U.S. alone. Even if we can’t travel much at the moment, many gardens have developed virtual visits, presentations, and videos so you can explore that way until we can move more freely. One of my favourites is the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, Virginia, which I hope to visit in person in the future. Check it out here.

I leave you with a photo of my messy Lakefield “English garden” from last summer, my hardworking husband and our 2021 new greenhouse and dreams of springtime.

Are You in the Zone?

By Cheryl Harrison, Master Gardener

Gardeners are used to seeing the “zone” as part of the information provided on the label of most perennial plants, trees and shrubs purchased from a nursery.  Some labels will list a zone with the corresponding temperature in brackets afterwards.  This seems like an easy way to determine if your chosen plant will successfully grow in your garden–you will need to know the average lowest winter temperature, in your region, then figure out your zone.  You then just buy the plant labelled with your zone for success!  Easy, right?  Yes and no!

In Canada, the original 1960’s plant hardiness zones were based on information gathered at 640 weather stations across the country along with the survival results of selected trees and shrubs.  In 2012, revised maps were released using elevation, more locations and more environmental details resulting in a hardiness index which corresponds to a zone .   At present, there are 13 zones ranging from 1-13.  You may also see an “a” or “b” beside the number.  This indicates a slight variation within that region. See Plant Hardiness Zone by Municipality to find your zone.

Zone 5, author’s garden.

In the USA, the system is different.  Again, there are 13 zones ranging from 1-13 and  “a” or “b” indicates variation within the region. See US Plant Hardiness Zones.   However, the US system is only based on minimum temperature and no other factors.  You may read about a plant grown in the US and designated US zone 5.  A US zone 5 labelled plant may require warmer winter conditions than it’s corresponding zone 5 labelled Canadian plant.  Bottom line, US zones may not be the same as Canada’s.

Canadian data is based on previously collected information but we know that the weather does not always follow past patterns — it can, and will, fluctuate (e.g. freeze/thaw cycles).  There may be microclimates (see Microclimate in Wikipedia) in your own gardening space.  Good gardening practices (e.g. soil preparation)  will contribute to the successful growth of your plant.  Plant survival and growth depends on your gardening expertise and knowledge.  The zone is just one indicator of whether, or not, the plant that you are contemplating will grow well in your garden.  Oh, and Peterborough is a Canadian plant hardiness zone 5 b.

Tips: 

#1 The plant hardiness zone site now can be used to explore where the specific plant that you are thinking about purchasing will grow through the “Species-Specific Models and Maps”.  It does this by creating a “climate profile” of the plant and then mapping where it will grow in Canada.  These are preliminary maps but click here to try it out.

#2 Grow native plants!  Native plants are specifically well suited to an area especially if you can purchase locally grown plants or find locally sourced seeds. 

#3 Consult local nursery staff and your knowledgeable fellow gardeners.  They will know what will successfully grow in your area.

#4 Experiment!  If there is a plant that you really must have, but the zone is off a little…..try it.  You will need to choose a protected location for planting and probably baby it along but sometimes it may be worth it. Talking to other knowledgeable local gardeners may be especially helpful….someone may have successfully grown that special plant in their garden and may share their growing tips with you!

Zone 5, author’s garden.

The Late Summer/Fall Garden

By Cheryl Harrison, Master Gardener

Your once showy, spectacular plants have finished blooming and their foliage may have withered.  Do not despair, the late summer/fall garden can still be something to behold as well as feeding the pollinators and other wildlife!

Annuals

Plants that grow, bloom, go to seed then die all in one season are annuals.  Annuals may be used to add some much needed colour at the end of our summer season.  Zinnia, Petunia, annual sunflower (Helianthus annuus) and Cosmos are easy to source and grow.  The ornamental kales and cabbages are dramatic plants that will look good in your pots or your garden.

Zinnia various — author’s garden

Shrubs

Hydrangea – I am referring to the panicle (H. paniculata) and smooth hydrangeas (H. arborescens) that bloom on new wood and may be pruned in late winter or very early spring.  This is a plant that steals the show in late summer, fall and even into winter.  They produce large, pink, white or pink/white poufy blooms.  The blooms may be dried for inside décor or left on the plant outside for winter interest. 

Witch hazel – Hamamelis virginiana is a native that blooms with interesting, spidery petaled, yellow flowers in the fall.  This plant will attract birds to your garden.

Perennials

Plants that grow, bloom and produce seed but do not die after just one season … some are short lived but some live for many years.  There are lots of perennials that bloom in late summer and fall.  Many, like the native Aster species and golden rod (Solidago species) provide food for wildlife including the pollinators.

Echinacea purpurea — author’s garden

Some others in my garden include:

Phlox – There are lots of P. paniculata cultivars that bloom in the fall.  This plant comes in a myriad of colours.  Do not confuse this plant with the mid-summer/August blooming dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis) which can be quite invasive.  Phlox flowers have five petals and dame’s rocket have four.

Black eyed susan – Bright, happy native plants and cultivars (Rudbeckia species) that may be annual, biennial (germinate in spring of first growing season but do not flower and go to seed until the next growing season) or perennial.  The wild ones that we see on the Ontario road side are most often biennials. 

Bugbane – Another pretty native (Actaea species formerly Cimicifuga) that blooms in the fall.  I spent lots of time trying to get a good photo of a bumblebee on this plant’s bloom but it was too fast for me!

Anise hyssop – The bees love Agastache foeniculum.  I have mine planted along a path.  It is tall and quite dramatic when in bloom.

Antennaria — author’s garden

Plume poppy – This is the plant that everyone will ask “what is that”.  Macleaya cordata growsvery tall and has an interesting seed head and large leaves.  Beware though because it can spread through rhizomes (underground roots) and it exudes an orangey sap when pulled.  It is easy to control just by pulling the plants when small but wear gloves to avoid touching the sap…it is poisonous.

Coneflower –  Echinacea purpurea is a native plant but there are lots of colourful cultivars.   Birds eat the seeds held in the spent blooms in winter.

Hydrangea — author’s garden

Pussy toes –  The bees love this native (Atennaria species) too.  Just like it’s common name, this plant has cute little flowers that resemble the toes of a soft, white kitten.

Sedum/stonecrops – These plants are some of the toughest, hardworking plants in your garden.  They can take lots of heat and dry conditions. There are many, many to choose from … some bloom in spring and some bloom into the fall. The sometimes colorful foliage can add interest and the blooms will attract pollinators.

Sedum — author’s garden

So observe your garden, does it need some help this time of year?  Try shopping the fall sales at your local nursery.  If you can fit in some of these plants, you will have a beautiful garden full of late season blooms. 

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.

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

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.’

Keeping This Gardener Humble

By Marilyn Homewood, Master Gardener in Training

Gardeners learn as much from their setbacks as from their successes. By now, I should have a prepared cutting garden partially planted with frost hardy annuals.  These are plants that prefer cooler growing conditions and can withstand a light frost allowing them to be planted early in the season. The group includes snapdragons, bachelor buttons, foxglove, scabiosa and sweet peas. However, instead of plants on their way to producing beautiful blooms, I have a 40 foot trench in my lawn.

The only cut flowers from this gardener so far

This garden was an end-of-year decision which meant a spring bed preparation, something I rarely do as the weather is not reliable and soil can be too wet to work. Working wet soil destroys the soil structure and porosity as well as wreaking havoc on soil microbial populations. 

Progress so far

Not to be deterred, I had the sod removed both to see what I had to deal with (this part of the yard had not been turned since 1964, if then!) and to allow the area to dry more readily when the sun returns. When the soil does become workable, I intend to use a modified version of the “no till” method popularized by Charles Dowding to create the bed. A fork (or broadfork) will be inserted into the bed at close intervals and gently pried up. This will permit some aeration, rock removal and opportunities for soil amendment (compost).  The amendments will be folded into the topsoil and the bed topped off with approximately 4 inches of compost.  The portion of the bed slated for the hardy annuals may be planted while the remainder can continue to warm until it is time to plant the warm season varieties such as zinnia and dahlia.  Lastly, a thin layer (1”) of shredded cedar mulch will protect the bed from incoming weed seed as well as help to keep the soil cool and retain moisture in the heat of the summer.

Hardening off in the morning sun

Ever hopeful, I have started to harden off plants. This is a gradual process over about a week that exposes tender plants to the outdoors and results in a thickening of the cuticle on the leaves. A thicker cuticle allows plants to retain moisture when exposed to the elements and helps to prevent transplant shock.  As my seedlings are grown “cold and slow” indoors (at 55 degrees), they seem to hardened off more readily.

T posts will be placed every 8 feet along both sides of the garden and will be used to suspend the flower netting horizontally. The netting is a 6 inch square grid in plastic that will be positioned tautly about 18 inches above the ground keeping long stemmed flowers erect and preventing them from being blown over by wind and rain.  Heavy, tall, floriferous plants will require a second layer of netting about 12 inches above the first.

The ranunculus will be planted using 6 inch spacings and Chantilly snapdragons will have 9 inch spacings.  The delay in planting will mean limited or no bloom as these plants go dormant with the summer heat.  However, the ranunculus corms can be dried and saved for next year and there are 2 other varieties of snapdragons started that tolerate the heat of summer.

The supplies are waiting

Once in the ground, plants will be hooped with temporary PVC hoops so that frost cloth can be used at night in case of frost or wind and to protect the young plants from deer and rabbits.

A wise gardener remembers that Mother Nature always bats last.

“it’s never too late to start anything, except maybe being a ballerina” Wendy Liebman

References

Cool Flowers, Lisa Mason Ziegler, St. Lyons Press, 2014

https://charlesdowding.co.uk

https://antoniovalenteflowers.com/blogs/gardening/growing-ranunculus-anemones

https://extension.unh.edu/blog/using-row-covers-garden

Let Us Praise Famous Oaks

By Laura Gardner, Master Gardener in Training

Ed: This post was released in error on March 22. Apologies if you’ve already read it — perhaps you can glean something from it upon second reading as well?

Quercus macrocarpa (bur oak) in Centennial Park, Peterborough, ON.

There are a pair of Quercus macrocarpa (bur oak) trees in a park near my house in Peterborough and I often look at them in awe. I estimate that these trees are between 100 and 150 years old. What is amazing is that they could live another 150 years. If they receive enough sunlight and moisture and their roots are undisturbed, this lifespan is possible. Sadly, most trees planted in cities are not long-lived due to stresses like heat, drought, road salt, compacted soil and interference by sewer or other utility lines. For these reasons, backyards tend to be the better locations for trees in urban environments. If you are planning to plant a tree on your property this year, Douglas W. Tallamy’s latest book, The Nature of Oaks: the Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees, published by Timber Press, will make you seriously consider an oak tree.

Tallamy, an entomologist who researches the relationships between insects and plants, is well known for his other books that seek to change the way we garden by encouraging us to incorporate more native plants. His latest book honours the oak tree and provides a month-to-month chronicle of the life of one on his property.  While small at 200 pages, the book has many interesting and informative anecdotes about the types of insects, birds, mammals, fungi, and micro-organisms that live in, on, and around these trees. Tallamy aims to instill in us an interest in these great trees and to recognize their important role within the food web.

What makes oak trees so special? In addition to moderating the climate, reducing pollution, producing oxygen, and storing carbon from the atmosphere, they have an enormous impact on the lives of other species. Within our ecosystem, oaks support more life than any other North American tree genus (p. 12) and they are considered a “keystone species.” A “keystone species” is one that produces food that supports a broad range of life forms. Over the course of its lifetime, an oak can produce over 3,000,000 acorns. Other trees such as birch, cherry, hickory, pine, maple, and willow are also “keystone” species (p. 39) but they are not as supportive as oaks. In his research, Tallamy measured the degree of this support by counting the number of moth and butterfly species that live, feed, and reproduce on different trees. The Lepidoptera Index places oaks at the top of the list at 532 species of moths and butterflies. One of the reasons as to why they support so many species is because they grow in a wide range of ecological zones (p. 41). Most species near the bottom of the list are non-native trees and shrubs. Most of our native insects and animals have not fully adapted or evolved to non-native plants or are only adapted to a small number of plants—referred to as host plant specialization (p. 37). Certain birds, like the black-capped chickadee need between 6,000 and 9,000 caterpillars to raise one clutch of young. Filling bird feeders with seed can be beneficial for them, but planting trees are necessary as up to 50% of their diet consists of insects (p. 34).

There are a number of unique and fascinating attributes of oaks that are explored in the book. Masting is a survival adaptation that occurs periodically in oaks where they produce many acorns. Since animals cannot eat them all, this allows more trees to grow (p. 18). Masting occurs on different cycles for both white and red oaks and this ensures food is consistently available for animals (p. 120). Many oaks retain their dead leaves through the fall and winter. Marcescence is thought to be a defence mechanism that deters animals from eating the tender buds (pp. 27-28).  Concerning acorn production, as an oak tree has both male and female flowers, a few can self-pollinate and grow acorns. However, for optimum production, an oak tree must be planted with another of its own species or be in close proximity to another of its own species for pollination (by wind) to occur (from either the “red oak” or the “white oak” group).

Marcescent Quercus rubra (northern red oak) along Heritage Trail, Peterborough, ON

Tallamy also provides us with some tree planting advice and seeks to dispel some of the myths around planting oaks. His first choice would be for us to plant an acorn in the fall but the next best choice would be to plant a bareroot whip in the spring. A bareroot whip is a pruned dormant tree that is only a few feet tall. It should be planted in the spring so it can break its dormancy naturally. Overall, he recommends purchasing the youngest tree available because it will have a better chance of survival than a larger tree. Larger trees often have damaged roots at planting and have a 50% chance of dying in the first few years after transplant. (p. 47)

While some oak species grow to great heights and widths, they do grow relatively slowly, and most people will not live to see their tree at its peak. Some may be concerned about its root system, but they extend deeply into the ground and tend not to interfere with driveways or sidewalks like some other species. Tallamy recommends planting two or three trees spaced 10 feet apart—in a grove. This may seem too close, but it is true to their nature in the wild. The trees’ roots will also bind together and the resulting strength of them will be able to withstand extreme weather and lessen the chances of damaging property.

For those with smaller lots, it may not be practical to plant more than one oak, let alone a larger species like Quercus alba (white oak) or Quercus macrocarpa (bur oak). There are several smaller oak species that may suit. Of these, two are native to the Carolinian zone of Southwestern Ontario: Quercus prinoides (dwarf chinquapin oak) and Quercus ilicifolia (bear oak) and one from the US Northeast: Quercus marilandica (blackJack oak). While the soils of the Carolinian zone are drier and sandier, these trees can be adaptable to other soil conditions. Nutcracker Nursery in Maskinonge, Quebec specializes in growing these hard-to-find oaks and they ship bareroot stock. The stock is grown in cooler zone 4B and in clay-loam soils. Peterborough GreenUp advises that while it is preferable that trees be selected from within their native eco-zone, climate change is making it more possible for us to consider some species from outside. Selecting a site that is shielded from winter winds is recommended.

Since an oak is a shade tree, there may be concerns about what can be grown beneath them but there are many plants that are suitable for the understory. Tallamy makes recommendations that are more suited to US states but I will suggest some possible plants suited to our area: Asarum canadense (wild ginger), Polygonatum biflorum (smooth solomon’s seal), Aquilegia canadensis (eastern red columbine), Ceanothus americanus (New Jersey tea), and Amelanchier alnifolia (Saskatoon serviceberry), just to name a few.

This little book is not only fascinating to read, it is inspiring. When the declining non-native Acer platanoides (Norway maple) is eventually removed from my yard, I am going to see about replacing it with a native oak “keystone species.”

Other Resources

Nutcracker Nursery and Tree Farm

Peterborough GreenUp. Choosing the Right Tree in Peterborough, Ontario

Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. Lepidoptera Index, June 2017

Tree Atlas of Ontario

Nativars and Pollinators

By Lois Scott, Master Gardener

The term “nativar”, while not a scientific term, is being used to describe native plants that have been cultivated by horticulturalists.  So, what exactly is a cultivated plant or cultivar?  A cultivar is a plant that has been bred for specific characteristics such as improved growth habit, specific leaf colour, flower colour, or disease resistance to list a few examples.  Many cultivars are sterile, meaning they do not produce seeds or if they do produce seed, the seed will likely not produce a plant identical to the parent plant. 

The way to identify a cultivar of a native plant or “nativar”, is by looking at the plant name.  If you check out the photos of plant tags, you will see one for the straight species native plant (not a cultivar) that gives both the common name, False Indigo and the scientific name, Baptisia australis.  The other tag is for a Baptisia cultivar named ‘Cherries Jubilee’.  ‘Cherries Jubilee’ is the cultivar name.  The cultivar name is usually in single quotation marks.

There are a number of very important reasons to plant straight species native plants in our gardens including the support of pollinators.  The question is, do native cultivars support pollinators in the same way? 

Annie White, a researcher at the University of Vermont has found “that changing flower size, colour or shape changed the availability and/or quality of pollen and nectar offered by the flower which negatively impacted pollinators” and “the more manipulated the cultivars became, the less attractive they became to pollinators”.  To read more about Annie’s research and results check out this link.  https://pollinatorgardens.org/2013/02/08/my-research/

If you are looking for pollinator-friendly native plants that are not cultivars check out nurseries that specialize in native plants such as Peterborough’s Ecology Park.  https://www.greenup.on.ca/ecology-park/  

When at the garden centre, you will now know how to distinguish a straight species such as Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower) from an Echinacea cultivar like Echinacea purpurea ‘Razzmatazz’.

Permaculture: Use of Zones

By Suzanne Seryck, Master Gardener

I have often heard permaculture referred to as ‘common sense’ gardening and their usage of ‘zones’ as one of their design principles is no exception. However, I have to admit up front that when I designed my previous garden, I had not heard of permaculture and was also unfortunately also lacking in common sense that day! What did I do that would ultimately cause me so much grief over the next 15 years?

We had just over 1 acre and the house was located towards the back of the property, so I decided to place the shed, vegetable garden, herb garden, nursery and greenhouse at the very front of the property. The result was that was pretty well everything that I needed to garden daily was all located as far away from the house as possible.

Shed way at the bottom of the garden
Closer look at shed

At the time I thought I had a good reason for this, keeping the children and pets close to the house. But ultimately when I needed the pruners to prune the hedge at the back of the garden, or I needed some herbs for the supper I was in the middle of cooking, or I was harvesting or watering, I ultimately came to regret my poor planning choice. So, a few years later when it came to finding a location for the chickens, by then I had attended a couple of permaculture courses, and I placed them as close to the house as possible. A location that while waking me up in the morning, ultimately made me pat myself on the back every day in the winter just before putting on all my winter gear to take out their food and water.

Zoning is a permaculture design tool that allows you to design your landscape according to usage and attention required. It is not limited to home gardens, and can be used on almost anything from a large farm to a kitchen design. By designing your garden using zones, you take into account the usefulness or frequency of each element in your garden, and place those elements closer to your location, which is your house. So something that you use daily, such as a herb garden, would be placed closest to the house, along with pots of annuals which require frequent watering and dead-heading. Using the same principle, fruit trees or a meadow garden requiring less maintenance would be placed further away from the house.

Zones are numbered from 0 through to 5, where 0 is the location of the house, and will be different in everyone’s garden. They are typically shaped by topography, soil type, placement of the sun, and the homeowner’s requirements. So while they are often shown in diagrams and books as either exact circles or half circles, they are more flexible often merging into one another.

Most permaculture books describe the following zones:

0 – Home
1 – Areas closest to your house that requires the most attention, harvesting, weeding, dead-heading, herb and vegetable garden
2 – Less intensively managed areas
3 – Fruit and nut trees, twice weekly maintenance
4 – Wild foods and timber, weekly maintenance
5 – Natural area

But again, these zones can be changed according to your requirements.

To start designing using zones, you need to look at each element in your garden according to how often you use the element or how often you need to care for the element. Zones are created based on relationships, our relationship to our garden, and how different elements in our garden connect with each other. It is best to start with elements closest to your house and work outward.

As an example, I have perennial flower beds in the front of my house and also in the back. The beds in the front are full to partial shade, heavily composted with leaves and packed with large leaved plants. I get very few weeds in the front beds and also do very little deadheading. The beds in the back meanwhile are full sun, plants are not placed as close together, they typically need more dead heading, and while they are also heavily mulched with leaves, the leaves typically only last until mid June. My front beds are in zone 3 and the beds in my back garden are in zone 2. Zone 1 in my garden is for annuals and vegetables in pots and hanging baskets surrounding the house that have to be watered frequently.

Permaculture zones are a tool that can be used when designing your garden to make your life easier. In the book Gaia’s Garden, A Guide to Home-scale Permaculture by Toby Hemingway, the author includes a quote from Bill Mollison, the co-founder of Permaculture, offering guidance for where to plant a herb garden.

“When you get up in the morning and the dew is on the ground, put on your woolly bathrobe and your fuzzy slippers. Then walk outside to cut some chives and other herbs for your omelet. When you get back inside, if your slippers are wet, your herbs are too far away.”