Category Archives: Information

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


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.

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.

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

Ode to the Clematophile!

By Cheryl Harrison, Master Gardener

I can not claim to be a clematophile (Clematis expert) but I do like Clematis!   Clematis are wonderful perennial flowering plants … many grow as vines, some are more like small shrubs, some are evergreen and some are herbaceous so die back to the ground each winter.  Their flowers come as bell-like or more star-like shapes with sepals that are single or double; some are scented.  And the colours!  They range from white or yellow to pink or red to purple or blue … pale to deep and some are even striped.  Some flowers grow as large as 25 cm (10in) across!  The beautiful clematis blooms are followed by eye-catching fuzzy seed heads.  There are lots of choices in the genus Clematis.

Clematis seed head

Clematis grow in zones ranging from 3-11.  If you are not sure which zone you are in, check here.   Choose a plant from a reputable dealer.  Look for those that have strong stems and are at least 2 years old so that their root structure is well developed.  Most Clematis prefer sun or part shade but like their roots kept cool so mulch or plant another perennial close by to shade the roots.  Plant your Clematis in moist but well drained soil with lots of well-rotted, organic matter (eg. finished compost) added.  Plant the ripened stem (brown, no longer green) about 16 cm (6 in) below the final soil level.  Clematis prefer neutral to slightly alkaline soil.  All new plants need to be watered regularly until they are established and during dry conditions.  Fertilize with an all purpose organic fertilizer monthly but stop when flower buds are ready to bloom in order to prolong bloom time.  You may start fertilizing again after flowering has ended but stop feeding in late summer early autumn.

Clematis on trellis

Pruning your Clematis for the best blooms may seem complicated.  The confusing part for me was that some references refer to groups 1,2,3 and others use group A, B, C  while others will use the species names.  What is important is knowing what you have and then you can determine how to prune.  Read your plant label for pruning directions or if you do not know which Clematis you have:

When does your Clematis flower?

  1. *flowers on old (previous year) wood in early to late spring, early summer.
    *does not need regular pruning – prune to remove damaged stems or to keep your plant tidy and growing within it’s allocated space.  Prune after the flowering period has ended.
  2. *flowers  early on old (previous year) wood and again in late summer on new current year’s growth. 
    *prune to remove damaged or weak stems and the early flower shoots (encourages the second period of flowering) immediately after the early flowering period.
  3. * flowers on current year’s growth in mid to late summer. 
    * prune back all of the previous year’s stems to the lowest pair of live buds in  early spring.
Clematis growing through shrub, author’s garden

Clematis may suffer from snails, slugs, aphids or mildew.  Clematis wilt is a fungal disease that may result in the sudden collapse of a previously healthy plant.  Cut back affected part of the plant, even right to the ground if necessary, if fungus wilt occurs.  I have to say that I have only ever experienced the odd slug-chewed clematis leaf in my garden just east of Peterborough.

Clematis will grow on a trellis and in a container, through the branches of another shrub or even up into trees.  It may be used as a ground cover and the shrub types look great in the perennial border.  Clematis flowers are lovely and will attract pollinators and provide them with pollen and nectar.

Read plant labels, talk to garden nursery staff  and other gardeners in your area and/or google to ensure that you purchase the clematis that is right for you.  We may not all become clematophiles but we can still have some of these wonderful plants in our gardens!

For more information check out:

Clearview Horticultural Products – Clematis and Vine Guide

International Clematis Society

Timber Press Pocket Guide to Clematis by Mary Toomey with Everett Leeds and Charles Chesshire, ISBN-13:978-0-88192-814-3

Clematis ‘Stand by Me’, bush type, author’s garden

Joys of Nature and Spring Garden Tasks

By Sharleen Pratt, Master Gardener

April 22nd was Earth Day.  It is a time for reflection on what we can do to help develop a new approach to conservation and it can all start in our own yard. As we experience what we all hope will be our last full shutdown, we need to remain optimistic in the growing interest in gardening with natives and the number of younger people who are learning to grow their own vegetables.  Douglas Tallamy, author of Nature’s Best Hope, writes that as homeowners, we need to “turn our yards into conservation corridors that provide wildlife habitats”.

Spring is a time of renewal.  To help us get through the stressful days of this lockdown, a walk outdoors will help you experience the joys of nature and all it has to offer! 

I have created two lists.  The first is ‘Joys of Nature’ that you will encounter this time of year.  The second is ‘Garden Tasks’ to tackle over the next few weeks.

JOYS OF NATURE

Hepatica image compliments of Joan Harding, Peterborough MG
  • My garden makes me smile this time of year with all the blooming Daffodils (Narcissus), Hyacinths, Hellebores and even Lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis). 
  • Local ponds are alive with the sounds of the spring peepers and the chorus frogs.  If you take a walk and come across a wetland, you will be amazed at the sound.
  • Many of the migrating birds and waterfowl have returned.  My feeders are being well used by the yellow finches, grackles, house finches and mourning doves.  If you enjoy the hummingbirds, don’t forget to get your feeders out now.  They will soon be back!
  • A walk through the woods will reveal the beauty of the spring ephemerals.  Ephemerals are short-lived spring flowers that take advantage of the sunshine before the trees get their leaves.  I have seen bloodroot, hepatica, coltsfoot and the beginnings of the trilliums and the dog-toothed violets.
  • If you are out digging in your garden, don’t be surprised if a robin will follow you around in the hopes you might throw him a much sought-after worm.  Robins are already nesting so the female is likely to be at the nest site.
  • Watch for early butterflies such as the Mourning Cloaks, Eastern Comma and the Spring Azure.
  • In early May, you should begin to see the white blossoms of serviceberries and the beginnings of the lilacs and the cherry blossoms.

Get outdoors, take a deep breath and walk slowly through a local park or wooded area and enjoy many of the items mentioned above.  Do it now before the return of the blackflies and mosquitoes!!

If you are interested in a sample of simple nature events in the Kawarthas, Drew Monkman, a retired teacher and well known environmentalist and advocate for climate control, has written this monthly almanac: https://www.drewmonkman.com/sample-page/monthly-almanacs/

SPRING GARDEN TASKS

Author’s Spring Garden… Hyacinths, Bloodroot and Daffodils
  • Only rake your lawn if walking on it leaves NO footprint.  The time to overseed your lawn is generally when the lilacs are in bloom.
  • Now is the time to top dress a generous amount of compost and other organic material into your garden beds.  Let the earthworms do the work.  I do not suggest that you rototill your garden as this disturbs the beneficial life in the soil.  Bacteria, mycorrhiza and insects are damaged, sometimes beyond repair, with rototilling.
  • Prune overgrown vines and shrubs such as some hydrangea and some of the clematis; basically all the shrubs and vines that do not bloom in spring.  Do not prune lilacs as they bloom on last year’s growth.
  • Gradually remove protection on rose bushes and prune down to a swollen bud.  Remove dead, diseased and crossing branches.
  • If you haven’t already, now is the time to sow frost tolerant veggies such as peas, carrots, spinach, lettuce, beets, kale and radishes directly into the garden.
  • Divide and transplant perennials as growth resumes.
  • Now is a good time to think about planting shrubs and trees.  Maybe you would like to replace an old shrub with something native, such as Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa), Eastern snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) or Gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa)
  • Be sure to have your rain barrels set-up and ready to collect that wonderful spring rain.
  • Keep your bird baths filled and cleaned.
  • If you have been growing tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and annual flowers indoors, early May is the time to begin to harden off those young seedlings.
  • The soil is still quite soft, so now is a good time to edge your garden beds as well as start to pull all those weeds that seem to survive no matter what the weather.

    Get out in your gardens, enjoy the warmer temperatures and don’t forget to get your knees dirty!

In Praise of Spring Bulbs

By Mary-Jane Pilgrim, Master Gardener

Spring bulbs are one of the most rewarding of garden plants. For very little maintenance, they show off their grandeur year after year while announcing the arrival of spring and a strengthening and more powerful sun.

“The more, the merrier” is my motto when it comes to bulbs. From snowdrops to crocus to daffodils to hyacinths to tulips, they all provide a show in the garden for very little effort, and they chase away the late winter browns. You likely have more room for bulbs than you think because you can plant them underneath perennials and shrubs that will hide the bulb foliage while it is dying down in late spring.

Spring bulbs are planted in between September and frozen ground during the year previous, and they spend the winter underground preparing for their showtime when the snow fades away. You’ll find bulbs of all types for sale in that timeframe at your local nursery centre, in supermarkets and in big box stores.

The secret to being able to plant more bulbs each year in the fall is to know what you have growing already and where. This spring: take pictures and more pictures so that you know where these reliable soldiers are and you can then avoid shoveling into an existing clump this summer.

Pictures are also helpful when it comes time to divide those happy but oversized clumps of bulbs. When the flowers begin to decrease, it’s time to divide and replant. The best time to do this is when the foliage has browned in late spring. Dig up the clumps, being careful to dig deep enough so as to not slice them into pieces by mistake. Replant a few immediately and store the rest in a dry place until the fall.

An alternative to pictures is to come up with a “bulb marking system” — I use green metal miniblinds to mark my bulbs. Unfortunately, the miniblinds do travel sometimes so I need to reinstate them in the spring if that has happened. The markers are a visual reminder that although it appears later in the summer that a particular location is bare, it is not and you’ll avoid having to replant those spring beauties.

If you purchased forced bulbs in the supermarket in February (like paperwhites, daffodils or tulips), these can be planted out into the garden that same year. After the greenery has died back, store them in a dry place until the fall and then plant them with other purchased bulbs.

For autumn planting: Choose the site for your new bulbs and prepare the area with compost and bone or blood meal. I usually plant 5 or 6 in a group initially for tulips, daffodils and smaller bulbs like crocus.

If squirrels and chipmunks are bothering your tulips after planting, try cutouts of 1″ chicken wire planted into the soil just above the bulbs. The bulbs will happily grow through the mesh next spring but the critters can’t dig past the wire mesh.

If squirrels are bothering your tulips in the spring, try daffodils instead. You could also try planting allium bulbs with your tulips as they emit an odour that the critters do not like. Other suggestions are some raw onions cut up and scattered around the bulbs or tall chicken wire cylinders, even if they are unsightly. Might be worth a try.

Lastly, you may also choose to embark on a squirrel-feeding program during bloom time to discourage the striped and bushy-tailed rodents from munching on your blooms in favour of yummy peanuts. Be aware, though, that this may actually encourage more squirrels to your buffet!

The importance of stretching when gardening

Make sure you warm up and stretch like you would for other activities!

By Emma Murphy, Master Gardener

(Disclaimer – The information provided is for general educational purposes only and not intended as medical advice; please discuss your personal situation with a medical professional)

The last time I was at my physiotherapist she said that more than half the cases she sees in April and May are related to gardening and sports injuries. People rush into doing things too quickly and most injuries could have been avoided by simply stretching properly to warm the body up.

“The secret to a healthy garden is a healthy gardener.”

Canadian Physiotherapy Association

Gardening is wonderful for your physical, mental, and emotional health, but if you don’t take care to stretch your body before spending time crouching, bending, and pulling weeds, you’ll end up feeling stiff and sore or potentially injuring yourself. This is especially important at the beginning of the season when we’ve been less active over winter but are overly enthusiastic to get into our gardens and complete all our spring tasks.

A stretching routine before and after gardening helps to minimize muscle imbalances, prevent injury, and improve your ability to garden for longer periods.

A warm up and stretches are critical to avoiding injury, particularly as we get older.

First, take a walk around your garden (or around the block) for 5 to 10 minutes to warm up your large muscle groups. The best stretches prior to gardening are dynamic stretches because they prepare your muscles for the repetitive movements required with gardening. After you finish gardening static stretches are better to improve your overall flexibility. Read more here.

This warm up will raise your heart rate and body temperature, as well as giving you an opportunity to assess your gardening situation and think about your plan for tackling the tasks ahead.

Yawning and stretching at the same time – cats are multitaskers!
(the cat stretch is great for your back as well) #gratuitouscatphoto

An excellent resource is this Michigan State University Rehabilitation Department page. Don’t let the name fool you – these recommendations and terrific embedded videos, as well as the brochure show you how to avoid having to pay them a visit!!

Source: Michigan State University Rehabilitation (https://rehab.msu.edu/media/tips/Gardening_Brochure.pdf)

Here’s some of the key videos:

MSU Gardening Warmup – Upper Extremities

MSU Gardening Functional Five

MSU Gardening Cool Down

And one more from the Marshfield Clinic Health System

Cindy Haynes of the Iowa State University Department of Horticulture has some great advice on preparing your body for the gardening season ahead. Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor at the University of Vermont’s Extension Department of Plant and Soil Science lists a number of stretches in this article.

The SouthEast Wisconsin Master Gardeners teamed up with the University of Wisconsin – Extension department to create this informative body mechanics brochure which includes both stretches and tips for various activities like bending, lifting, and turning.

If you suffer from arthritis, this publication by the U.S. National AgrAbility Project called Arthritis and Gardening contains information about arthritis, how it affects gardening activities, and things you can do to minimize its effects.

A few final words from my own experience:

  • Make sure you always have enough water with you and drink plenty of it, particularly in the summer months. Dehydration can impede your body function and lead to aches and pains. Read more detail here.
  • While doing repetitive activities, limit any one to 20 minutes, then take a 5 minute break and stretch. Then your next activity should not involve the same muscle group. So weed for 20 minutes, stretch, then rake for 20 minutes.
  • After a busy day gardening and completing some static stretches, a warm bath with Epsom salts does the body a lot of good.

Gardening is a great activity for maintaining and improving your body’s range of motion, bone density and muscle strength, and joint flexibility, not to mention the benefits of reducing stress and anxiety, which we are all dealing with during this pandemic.

At Sergeant Phil Esterhaus used to say on the TV show Hill Street Blues “Let’s be careful out there”.

Don’t Spring into Spring Clean-Up just Yet

By Anica James, Master Gardener in Training

Spring is finally here, a time for new beginnings. The days are getting longer, birds are singing their hearts out and the snow has melted for the most part, but it’s still too soon to do any kind of clean up in your yard. It may be tempting to get out the rake or leaf blower just because it’s sunny and leaf bags are on sale at your local box store, but we need to hold off just yet for the sake of helping other creatures and pollinator species who are still asleep.

Although we are all anxiously waking up from our own personal winter hibernation–whether it be mental or physical–many creatures around us are still sound asleep in the leaf litter or below the mulch and we should not disturb them just yet. When you clean up your yard too soon, all for the sake of aesthetics or curb appeal, you are essentially removing all of the beneficial insects in your vicinity, like those responsible for making your flowers bloom or for your fruit and vegetable plants to produce food.

Some beneficial pollinators overwinter in the hollow stalks of perennials and under rocks. Examples of insects local to us that are still in diapause state are butterflies (like Mourning Cloaks or Question Marks), lacewings, ladybugs, mason bees and parasitic wasps, which all spend the winter either as pupae or adults hidden away in your yard. Even Luna moths and black swallowtails spend the winter months in cocoons or pupa that look just like a crumpled brown leaf, so be on the lookout for those.

It is best to wait until the temperature is consistently 10 degrees Celsius before you start raking leaves, turning soil, or using a leaf blower. Personally, I like to play it safe with the 10 For 10 rule: 10 degrees for 10 days. This allows nature to take its course and it allows me to have enough time to observe my property and familiarize myself with the various kinds of flora and fauna that emerge post-winter.

If you do decide you feel so inclined to “tidy up” this early, do it with purpose and be mindful of the sleeping and living creatures that are still hidden away. Take your time, look for any signs of beneficial insect stages and either take note and leave it for a later date, or carefully cut and set it aside in a natural area so solitary bees and others insects can still use the refuse for food or shelter. Refrain from adding more mulch because it can trap certain kinds of beneficial bees, beetles and flies that burrow in the ground (almost 70% of Canada’s bee species nest underground). For more information on how to properly “clean up” your yard read Nesting and Overwintering Habitat for Pollinators and Other Beneficial Insects PDF by the Xerces Society.

But again, the best thing to do is wait and to try to remove as little from your property as possible.

So in the meantime, what can you be doing instead of gardening?

  • Get outside, go for walks, enjoy the little things; notice the bulbs emerging naturally and gracefully from the cool earth, poking their way through the leaf litter- now is the time to enjoy the scilla, crocus, pushkinia, galanthus and helleborus
  • Continue to sow vegetable and annual seeds indoors and plan your garden; what are your goals for this year, however big or small?
  • Early spring is the best time of year to be on the lookout for invasive pests and plant species and begin to develop an Integrated Pest Management plan; gypsy moths, garlic mustard, european buckthorn, and goutweed are commonly found throughout the Peterborough area
  • Focus on spring cleaning your tools, your patio furniture, tidying your deck, potting bench or shed; put more focus into the inanimate things
  • Celebrate the beginning of spring by honouring the maple tree, it’s delicious sap and syrup, and the work that goes into providing us all with natural liquid sugar; maybe consider ordering a maple for your own yard
  • Repot indoor plants if needed
  • Read up on and think about ways you can increase pollinator habitat on your property or within your community, no matter the scale

There is so much that you can do while resisting the urge to rake or blow. Relax, enjoy the much needed sunshine that the vernal equinox has brought us after the long winter and try to go at the same pace nature is. Patience will pay off in the long run once you remember that gardening isn’t just about plants.

Great resources for more information about pollinators that spend the winters in our gardens and why we should hold off until mid-April to start yard work: