Category Archives: Information

Winter Browning of Conifers

By Laura Gardner, Master Gardener in Training

This spring as I walk around my neighbourhood, I have noticed quite a few evergreen conifers with brown needles. The species that are commonly affected are mainly the dwarf and ornamental varieties such as Picea glauca ‘Conica’ (Dwarf Alberta Spruce), Thuja occidentalis ‘Smargd’ (Emerald Cedar), and Taxus spp. (Yew). Some of the more robust and resistant conifers are the parent species such as Thuja occidentalis (Eastern White Cedar).

Some Causes[i]

  1. Inadequate moisture
  2. Inadequate protection from sun and wind
  3. Rapid freezing/thawing
  4. Salt spray damage
  5. Root damage at transplant
  6. Late season pruning and fertilization
  7. Late fall transplant
  8. Genetic maladaptation

Cultural Practices for Recovery and Future Maintenance

Depending on the extent of the damage, these shrubs may recover and produce new growth. This process can be encouraged by additional watering and the addition of mulch. Shrubs should be well-hydrated up until freezing in the fall to prepare them for moisture loss in the following winter. Mulching helps protect shallow roots from drying out, can help limit frost-heaving, and moderates the temperature of the soil.

Prior to winter, consider adding some protection such as a burlap screen with stakes for plantings on the south and/or west side where it is sunny or windy or near driveways and walkways that are salted. Burlap can be wrapped around shrubs but should be kept loose so that moisture is not trapped. The advantage to a screen is that the area remains open to air and light. Salt, sun, and wind can draw out moisture from the needles and because the ground is frozen, the roots are unable to draw in replacement moisture. Planting these types of shrubs on the north and east sides, in less open areas, and away from driveways can minimize damage.

Shrubs that have been dug from the nursery field and then have been repotted for sale may be subject to some root damage/loss. This can be more problematic when transplanting late in the fall as there is limited time for root re-development. In addition, the ability of the roots to draw in moisture before freeze-up can be compromised. Refrain from pruning and fertilizing late in the summer as this can encourage a flush of late new growth—tender growth that is more susceptible to winter damage.

Conifers that are exhibiting winter browning:

Is Supportive Care Enough?

Perhaps—it is required in the first few years after transplant and probably they will continue to require extra support. However, some dwarf and ornamental conifer cultivars are simply not genetically adapted to thrive in this region. This is because they have originated from areas of more moderate climate and hardiness zones. When considering trees and shrubs, while some species are more adaptable than others, it is preferable that stock be grown locally and be from local cuttings and seed. Forest Gene Conservation Association notes that “bringing material in from dissimilar areas often results in low survival from heat stress or winterkill, frost damage, reduced growth rates, and increased insect and disease problems.”[ii] While climate change is indeed allowing us to push the envelope a little and plant some species from the next hardiness zone, and there are assisted migration[iii] programs for species, there can be a risk in transplanting certain plants from further afield. Plants are genetically adapted to follow a particular timed growth cycle. For example, a study of Quercus rubra (Red Oak) found that a specimen grown in Algonquin Park that was transplanted in the Niagara region stopped growing before the end of the growing season. It was genetically adapted to a growing season of 185 days but the growing season in Niagara is around 230 days. Another specimen grown in Niagara that was transplanted in Algonquin Park was genetically adapted to continue growing past the end of the growing season there and as a result suffered frost damage and browning. It would be weakened and be more prone to damage from disease and insects.[iv]

Another study of Picea glauca (White Spruce) in Alberta found that cold hardiness was determined to be the trait with the strongest genetic variation. Seed from plants originating from Ontario had high growth but a poor survival rate. Because they were accustomed to longer growth periods, there were more vulnerable to early damaging frosts. The plants with the highest survival and growth rates were grown from local stock.[v]

Before purchasing, determine your garden’s site conditions: soil, moisture, drainage, sunlight, wind, climate, and whether the trees or shrubs you are considering can adapt readily to the conditions. Climate change also needs to be considered as we experience increased drought and higher temperatures. Determine their origin. Ask the vendor where they were grown. If they originated from an area with very different conditions, consider giving them a pass. Realize that “if a tree is not genetically adapted to your site conditions, no amount of care will help it grow as vigorously as one from the appropriate source.”[vi]

Keep in mind the gardening adage, “the right plant for the right space.”


[i] Winter Burn. University of Wisconsin Garden Fact Sheets. Online: https://hort.extension.wisc.edu/files/2015/01/Winter-Burn.pdf

[ii] Seed Source Matters. Forest Gene Conservation Association. Online: https://fgca.net/2016/12/seed-source-matters/

[iii] Assisted Migration. Forest Gene Conservation Association. Online: https://fgca.net/climate-change/assisted-migration/

[iv] How Far Should the Seed Fall from the Tree? It’s a Question of Respecting Diversity: Genetic and Environmental. Online: https://ontariosnaturalselections.org

[v] Sebastian-Azcona, Jaime, et al. Adaptations of White Spruce to Climate: Strong Intraspecific Differences in Cold Hardiness Linked to Survival. Ecology and Evolution, vol. 8, no. 3, 2018. Online: http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/ece3.3796.

[vi] When Planting Trees. Forest Gene Conservation Association. Online: https://fgca.net/forest-gene-convservation/when-planting-trees/

Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly

By Mary-Jane Pilgrim, Master Gardener

Common European holly (Ilex aquifolium) has a long history of use as a Christmas symbol. It appears on Christmas cards, in holiday arrangements, in Christmas carols, and my personal favourite: in stained glass ornaments. This shiny, spikey evergreen plant is easy to use for decorating, plus it has a long history of cultural significance.

Holly is a shrub-like tree that can grow up to 10-15 feet in height. Its leaves are thick and leathery, with serrated edges and spiky points. The female versions of the tree produce the red berries we’re so used to seeing everywhere at Christmastime. It is sold as a perennial in our region, but very few of the over 400 species are actually hardy in zone 5 (Peterborough). One such variety is American holly (Ilex opaca). The plant requires four or more hours of direct, unfiltered sunshine per day, and requires acidic, rich, and well-drained soil.

For centuries this magical shrub-tree has been been used in winter solstice decorating in central and northern Europe, specifically among the Celts who wore crowns of holly for good luck. They would hang holly sprigs from their windows and doorways to keep evil spirits away. Holly gradually became a symbol of hospitality and welcome.

In pre-Victorian times Christmas trees were not pines, but holly bushes. Christian culture adopted the holly – along with ivy – in Christmas celebrations; holly symbolized Christ’s crown of thorns; the crimson berries represented His blood and the evergreen a metaphor for life after death.

Holly is a real showstopper in winter when little else is green. The same features that make it so attractive today are what made holly a mythical plant to ancient cultures.

Holly’s red berries, toxic to humans and most household pets, are only produced on female plants. Hollies are dioecious, which means male and female flowers occur on separate plants (female flowers must be pollinated by male flowers to produce berries). So if you would like to see those bright red holly berries in winter, you’ll have to plant one male for every 5-10 female plants. The berries are a food source for some of our native birds in the winter.

While most of us no longer believe in the magic of plants, holly is indeed a beautiful adornment for our winter homes (“deck the halls with boughs of holly”), and has a long history of significance throughout the world.

From the Peterborough Master Gardeners to each of our amazing subscribers, we’d like to wish you all a blessed Christmas & holiday season!

Resources

The Plastic Dilemma

By Marilyn Homewood, Master Gardener

The recent severe weather experienced by the west coast drives home the reality of our changing climate. Gardeners pride themselves on being good stewards of the land and are always trying new techniques to improve. However, there is a fly in the sustainability ointment.

The horticultural industry uses a lot of plastic. Pots, weed barrier, netting, propagation equipment; it’s overwhelming.  On a global basis, about 4 percent of world oil production is used as a feedstock for all plastic and another 4 percent is consumed as energy in the manufacturing process. Emissions are just the beginning of the problem.  The Earthways Center at the Missouri Botanical Garden estimates that about 350,000 lbs. of horticultural plastic enters the waste stream each year in America. Plastic is ubiquitous, does not degrade rather it disintegrates and some types (PVC and polystyrene) leech toxins into the soil and groundwater.  As it disintegrates, it becomes microplastic fragments that can be found both in marine settings and in the soil.  We are all aware of the impact on marine life but it has now been discovered that these fragments are in the soil and have a significant negative impact on arthropods and roundworms (all important in the breakdown of organic matter). 

Freedom from plastic is the goal but will take time. There are things gardeners can do right now to reduce their plastic consumption.

  • Extend the life of plastic you already own by careful handling and reuse
  • Forgo plastic when workable alternatives exist. Use biodegradable pots made of coir or fibre and try soil blocking for starting seedlings. Use wooden plant markers.
  • Buy bare root plants and or start plants from seeds to cut down on plastic pots
  • Use planters made of terra cotta, metal or ceramics.
  • Only use tools made from metal and wood
  • Skip the use of bagged products and purchase these products at a bulk outlet using preowned containers.
  • Use weed barriers that biodegrade such as cardboard or biofilm (made from corn)
Metal tools that last a lifetime

There may still be items for which no good alternative exists in your situation.  In these cases, purchase higher quality versions that are more durable and last a long time.  Companies such as Bootstrapped Farmer are now specializing in this type of product.

Many years ago (1996) I purchased 2 large plant trays from Lee Valley Tools and am still using them.  The trays are still in the catalogue and I am going to purchase more.  I have a metal watering can which I have had since I started to garden.  These things can be passed along to younger gardeners.  As the urgency of this issue becomes apparent, additional products come to market assisting in the transition to freedom from plastic.

“We have forgotten how to be good guests, how to walk lightly on the earth as its other creatures do.” ~ Barbara Ward


Resources

https://www.gardenorganic.org.uk/say-no-plastic-garden

https://www.npr.org/2019/07/09/735848489/plastic-has-a-big-carbon-footprint-but-that-isnt-the-whole-story

https://www.bootstrapfarmer.com/

Mushrooms in the Wild

By Mary-Jane Pilgrim, Master Gardener

Go for a hike in the woods in November, and you’ll see plants you’ve probably never seen before. With the wetness of fall comes an entire forest of miniature fungus elements of many different shapes, sizes and colours. Some can be eaten, others don’t taste very good, some will make you sick and a small number of them will kill you. In general, the types of trees in the forest will determine what fungus and hence what mushrooms will grow there.

Mushrooms are the fleshy, spore-bearing fruit of various fungi. They are generally short-lived. They can emerge from the ground, expand, produce spores, and die back in a matter of a few days. Some are as big as dinner plates and some as small as pinheads.

This fall, myself and two active friends have been going hiking in different parks, conservation areas and public wild spaces in our area. Whenever we see a new mushroom, we generally stop and take a closer look and we’re often amazed at what we find. In additional to the white, brown and sometimes orange mushrooms, we also find different mosses and lichens. We often taunt each other to try to eat the different mushrooms, but just in jest — recognizing the danger of improper identification.

Mushrooms play an important role in our ecosystem. They are capable of decomposing pretty much any material (plant or animal) in the woods and breaking it down into the primary components of forest soil; providing nutrients that feed the plants growing in it. Many animals rely on mushrooms for food, especially squirrels and other rodents. Slugs also dine on mushrooms, and certain types of flies spend their whole lives on, and in, mushrooms.

Mushrooms develop from a mycelium; a mass of threadlike structures that make up the main part of the fungus. It is usually embedded in soil or wood. These mycelia often form connections, called mycorrhizae, with the roots of coniferous trees and other plants. Unlike plants, mushrooms cannot synthesize their own food from the sun’s energy. They lack chlorophyll – the substance which permits plants to use sunlight to form food. Mycorrhizae assist the plants around mushrooms in absorbing water and nutrients, and in turn, the fungi receives some of the carbohydrates the plant produces through photosynthesis — it’s a symbiotic relationship.

Most interesting to me are the mushrooms that grow in rings. Recently, while hiking the “UpTown” trail in HaroldTown Conservation Area east of Peterborough, we spotted several large rings of mushrooms and wondered how and why they were growing like that. Turns out that when a mushroom spore lands in a suitable location, the underground roots grow out evenly in all directions. As the fungus grows and ages, the oldest parts in the center of the pile die, creating a circle. When the fungus roots produce its mushrooms, they appear above-ground in a ring. The ring continues to grow outwardly, eating up all of the nutrients in its path, and leaving behind nutrient-rich soil.

There are edible mushrooms in our forests like chanterelles, morels, and porcini mushrooms. Also to be found from the fungi family are edible puff balls. Foraging is prohibited in Ontario’s provincial parks without proper authorization and also in conservation reserves, unless the forager is harvesting for personal consumption. In Toronto, foraging for any purpose is illegal in city parks and natural spaces. The Ontario Poison Centre views foraging as an “extremely dangerous” hobby because the difference between safe and toxic mushrooms can be microscopic.

Warning: Never consume a wild mushroom unless you are certain of its identity and edibility. Do not attempt to identify a mushroom from comparing photographs alone. Check out all the characteristics and if in any doubt, do not eat them.

Foraging aside, my suggestion after my experiences this fall is to get out and hike in the forest before the snow falls because there are still thousands of mushroom creatures along the forest floor in different shapes, sizes and colors. It’s a whole new garden in the fall once most of the green has disappeared. Take a camera along with you!

Resources:

https://www.tvo.org/article/where-the-wild-things-are-foraging-in-ontario

https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/wild-mushrooms-in-canada

Verbena bonariensis

By Sharleen Pratt, Master Gardener

Verbena bonariensis Courtesy of pixabay.com

I was very intrigued by the plant known as Verbena bonariensis.  This particular Verbena is often shown growing in gardens on the British show Gardener’s World.

I managed to find seeds this spring from William Dam Seeds Ltd.  The package instructed me to start seeds 8 to 10 weeks before the last frost, however, due to a huge demand for seeds the past few years, my package arrived quite late and I was unable to start the seeds until well into April.  At the best of times, Verbena can be an erratic germinator and I was only successful getting one seed to germinate.  However, this one plant was a huge success and I will definitely be trying again next year, although I may be lucky to find some seedlings in my garden.

This plant is one of about 250 species in the genus Verbena. Most are not in cultivation.  It is native to Brazil and Argentina.  Bonariensis means ‘from Buenos Aires, Argentina’.  ‘Buenos’ means ‘good’ and ‘aires’ means ‘air’. It is a perennial in zones 7 to 11, therefore, is grown as an annual in the Peterborough region.  In some milder climates such as California, it can be considered a weed. Verbena bonariensis, also known as Tall Verbena or Brazilian Verbena has stiff upright branching stems.  It reaches a height of 3 to 6 feet and spreads 1 to 3 feet and is unlikely to fall over.  The stiff square and rough stems hold clusters of lilac-purple flowers from early summer right through to late fall.  The deep green, lance-shaped serrated leaves form a mounded rosette at the base of the plant.  The flowers are borne in rounded clusters 2 to 3 inches across.  The cut flowers last a long time in flower arrangements.  England’s Royal Horticultural Society Floral Committee awarded V. bonariensis an Award of Garden Merit (the Society’s symbol of excellence given to plants of outstanding garden value) “because of its attractive flowers and uncluttered habit.” They can make an unforgettable display and although they are tall plants, they have an open and airy appearance which lends them to being tucked in between other plants or even creating a dramatic appearance at the front of a border.  They sway in the breeze and are very attractive to butterflies, bees and other insects.  They prefer full sun to part shade in well-drained soil.

Our very hot summer did not affect its performance and knowing that they are drought tolerant once established is another plus for this plant. There are little known pests or diseases, although powdery mildew can sometimes be a problem.  White spots on the leaves do not seem to have much impact on blooming.

If you leave the flowers to develop seed heads for the birds, the plant may self-seed the following year.  As this was my first season with this plant, I will have to wait until the spring to see if my conditions are good for self-seeding.  I understand that they may not appear until late spring.

It is also possible to cultivate through cuttings and you can find out how to do this in this short video by the very well-known British gardener Monty Don.

Harvesting Herbs for the Winter

By Sharleen Pratt, Master Gardener

Author’s potted herbs– sage, parsley, rosemary & thyme

Most would agree that fresh herbs taste better than dried.  There is no need to forego the companionship of fresh herbs once winter sets in.  You can make good use of the herbs you are growing in your garden by bringing them into your homes, potting them up and putting them in a sunny window.  If this isn’t possible, you can consider drying which concentrates and preserves the flavouring oils contained in the leaves.  Read below for some of the many options you might consider as our summer months draw to an end.

MOVING HERBS INDOORS

Many herbs can be brought indoors and with proper care, survive the winter months.  They need ample light, even moisture and moderate temperatures.  Remember to pot up the herbs in your garden early.  Do not wait until frost is imminent, because herbs are best if gradually acclimatized to the indoor environment, especially to the lower light conditions. Use a quality potting mixture and a good sized pot.  Prune back the foliage and roots if necessary.  You will get some wilting of leaves and some may die, but you should see some new growth soon.  Remove any dying leaves as they turn yellow.  It’s also a good practice to dip your plants in an insecticidal soap solution before moving them indoors to guard against aphids and spider mites.  If you have the time, gradually move your plants into shadier locations and eventually indoors to your sunniest window.

I have had good success with bringing in my rosemary plant and it remains quite happy in my kitchen window.  I do occasionally mist the leaves and I am lucky to have a south facing window.

I take cuttings from my basil and put the cut stem in water.  Be sure to do this before the cold as basil can die overnight.  Once there are some tiny roots, transfer it to a pot with some good quality soil.  It will require five or six hours of direct light.

Author’s basil cuttings

AIR DRYING

The simplest way to preserve herbs is by air drying, which usually takes two to three weeks.  Tie large leafy-stemmed herbs with rubber bands into loose bundles and hang them in a room or closet with good cross air circulation. It is best to gather the leaves in the early morning after the dew has evaporated. They should feel crisp when fully dry.

You can also spread the herbs over a screen or netting in a dark ventilated area, but you must be sure they are completely dry before storing to avoid any mould.

Photo credit: Amy Kimball, Herbal Houseplants

DEHYDRATOR

My neighbour had a very old dehydrator that hadn’t been used in years.  As has happened in this pandemic, she pulled it out of her cupboard and began to use it.  I had an abundance of basil which I gave to her.  She put it in her dehydrator and within a few hours I had wonderful dried basil that is much greener and fresher than anything I would get at the store.

You can also set your oven to 175 degrees and lay the herbs on cookie sheets in a single layer.  Depending on the herb, this can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours.  Be sure to check every 30 minutes since herbs all dry at different rates.  Allow to cool completely before crumbling.

MICROWAVE

Microwave ovens preserve the colour and flavour of herbs, but can only handle small amounts at a time.  Place the herbs on a paper towel in a single layer and microwave using 30 second intervals. You may have to experiment as temperatures of microwaves tend to be different.  Let them cool completely before storing.  I’m not a huge fan of this method as I don’t find the microwave heats evenly and it is just too fiddly for me.

STORING DRIED HERBS

They can be stored in airtight containers away from heat, light and moisture. It is best to use glass or metal tins with tight fitting lids.  Plastic breathes and will allow the herbs to absorb moisture.

Herbs can also be stored in the freezer.  I have had great success with parsley and coriander.  I store the leaves in an airtight ziploc bag and find it easy to take out what I need for soups, etc.

Another method would be to chop fresh-cut herbs and evenly spread on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and place in the freezer for several hours.  Pack the frozen herbs in small containers, label and date the containers and keep frozen for 6 to 8 months. 

Or, you could freeze finally chopped herbs in stock or water for use in stews or soups.  This can be done in ice-cube trays.  Remove the frozen cubes and store in a ziploc bag.

Richters Herbs website has lots of information about the preservation and storing of herbs.

Reaping the Flower Harvest

By Marilyn Homewood, Master Gardener

Despite a delayed start followed by early heat and drought,  seedlings did grow and flowers eventually bloomed. The biggest challenge proved to be the prolonged early drought.  Being on a dug well, I was only really prepared to water the dahlias from the well.  Luckily, I have a free running spring behind my farm.  After assembling a sufficient number of containers, I found that fetching water from the spring provided enough moisture to get plants established and supported until it rained.  I divided the bed into 4 sections and watered each on a rotating basis.    

Fetching water

The lack of water and heat made for some small blooms initially but attractive non the less.  By mid-August, I was cutting snapdragons (who proved to be the workhorses of the garden), loads of zinnias and scabiosa as well as various fillers such as dara and celosia.  Then the gladioli, sunflowers and dahlias decided to show up. Suddenly, I seemed to be doing as much deadheading as harvesting cut flowers. 

Harvesting flowers correctly and caring for them ensures a longer vase life and more enjoyment from your flowers. To keep flowers alive, you must preserve the stems’ ability to take up water after cutting.  The tubules that water moves through can become blocked either by air bubbles or by bacterial growth.  Recutting stems exposes fresh tubules to water and the use of a few drops of bleach in vase water reduces bacterial growth.

Conditioning Flowers

Key things to remember:

  • Cut the flower at the correct stage.  This varies between flower types.  Some like peonies are best cut when the bud is unopened but coloured and soft.  Conversely, zinnias must be fully open.
  • Harvest during the coolest parts of the day (early morning or dusk) when plants are well hydrated
  • Use clean, sharp clippers to prevent crushing the stems (which damages the tubules in the stem)
  • Take a clean bucket of warm water into the garden and place newly cut flowers in bucket after stripping lower leaves off
  • Allow flowers to rest (condition) in a dark, cool place prior to allow them to rehydrate
  • Use clean vases and recut stems prior to arranging
  • Change water daily and recut stems every other day
  • Homemade flower food can be helpful.  Use one teaspoon sugar and one teaspoon to bleach per litre of water
  • Keep flowers out of direct sunlight and away from ripening fruit (ethylene gas).  Both shorten bloom life

In addition to those flowers grown specifically in the cutting garden, I was able to utilize some of the plants in the landscape beds as accents for arrangements without taking away from the landscape value.  Perennials such as liatris, grass seed heads and foliage are interesting additions.  

The only thing left to do is to sit back and enjoy!!

Earth laughs in flowers.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Resources

A Year in Flowers, Erin Benakein, Chronicle Books, 2020

https://thekokorogarden.com/flower-growing-guides

https://www.thegardenersworkshop.com/how-to/lisas-tips-tricks/cut-flower-harvest-guide/

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.