Category Archives: Information

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:

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.”

Low Growing Natives for Lawn Replacement

By Sharleen Pratt, Master Gardener

I recently listened to a talk by Lorraine Johnson who is the former president of the North American Native Plant Society and is the author of numerous books on gardening and environmental issues. I was inspired by her talk and have started plans to turn part of my front lawn into a native garden.

I have struggled for years to grow grass near the bottom of our front yard.  The soil is mostly clay with a lot of rock.  We have no sidewalks and this part of the lawn sits at the curbside where it could be affected in the winter by salt and sand.  It faces north/west and receives a very hot sun, especially in the afternoon.

I am not a regional native plant purist.  I get excited about most plants and have a variety of perennials in my gardens.  I am hoping to fill this garden bed with as many native plants as possible, but I do recognize that some of the plant varieties are not always considered native.

There are a number of lovely native plants for sun that have height, but I am cognizant of the fact that my neighbour requires a safe line of sight to the street when they come down their driveway.  For this reason I would like to use mostly low growing groundcover with a few taller plants positioned in areas that will give a pleasing look to the garden bed, but also not impede on visibility.

I have begun to research native groundcovers and other low growing plants that would survive in the conditions I’ve described and here is what I have found so far.  Some of these are new to me, but others are plants I already have in my backyard.

Have you considered replacing part of your lawn?  I would love to hear about your ideas and your successes and failures.

Bearberry (Kinnikinnick) Arctostaphylos uva-ursi

This plant grows 6 to 8” tall and has a spread of approximately 3 feet and is similar to a low growing shrub.  It has a white bloom with a tinge of pink in May.  It’s drought tolerant once it’s established. Rounded berry-like fruits ripen in August to September.  Birds love the fruit!  I have a friend who has found that this plant will disappear over time and because it prefers a sandier soil, it may not be the perfect plant for my home.  However, I may give it a try as I occasionally enjoy pushing the limits.

Creeping Juniper, Juniper horizontalis ‘Wiltonii’

This plant is known to be salt tolerant, likes sandy soil and full sun, grows to a height of 8” and spreads to approximately 7 ft.  It is a non-flowering evergreen.  It spreads by long trailing branches. Foliage is primarily scale-like (adult) with some awl/needle-like (juvenile) needles appearing usually in opposite pairs. Foliage is typically green to blue-green during the growing season, but often acquires purple tones in winter. It likes to grow over rocks; however, it is a slow grower and takes some time to get established. 

Prairie Smoke, Geum triflorum

Prairie Smoke; Author’s garden

This is a tough plant, and grows to about 6 – 12 inches.  It has a lovely reddish pink to purple bloom with interesting seed heads.  It is drought tolerant.  My one concern is the hot afternoon sun, as my research shows it may prefer a bit of shade later in the day.  As the flower fades and the seeds begin to form, the styles elongate (to 2″ long) to form upright, feathery gray tails which collectively resemble a plume or feather duster.  They are very unique.  It spreads by rhizomes and can be naturalized to form an interesting groundcover.

Small Pussytoes, Antennaria howelli

It has spoon-shaped basal leaves, is known to be drought tolerant, and has flower heads that look like little shaving brushes.  There are three to 15 flower heads in a flat to rounded cluster at the top of the stem. Stems are erect, green to reddish, covered in long, white, matted hairs and sometimes glandular hairs. Horizontal, above ground stems (stolons) emerge from basal leaf clumps, spreading in all directions, rooting at the nodes and forming colonies.

Pasque Flower, Anemone patens or sometimes Pulsatilla vulgaris

Pasque Flower; Author’s garden

Pasque flower grows up to 12 inches tall and forms a rounded clump, which increases yearly. It never gets out of hand, making it a desirable plant.  It carries one flower with purple petals and yellow stamens, on top of each stem.  The bloom is quite large, up to 2 inches in relation to the overall size of the plant.  It is not fussy about soil conditions, but may go dormant during drought.  It blooms in late spring into summer.

Nodding Wild Onion, Allium cernuum

My research shows this is a very pretty plant that grows to a height of 1 to 2 feet.  It blooms in mid-summer.  Its grass-like ribbony leaves are long and graceful; its flower cluster hangs down, covered with a fine onion-skin-like sheath before opening.  The blooms in mid-summer are whitish rose coloured and bell-shaped.  The seed heads are round.  It does prefer good drainage.  Looks best when planted in groups.

Butterfly Weed, Asclepias tuberosa

Butterfly Weed with Zinnias; Author’s garden

This is a butterfly magnet that has clusters of orange flowers borne at the top of 2-to-3-foot stems.  It is probably a little larger than I would like, but thought I might give it a try in the front.  This image is from my garden 3 years ago.  I lost the plant the next year and believe it was because of overcrowding and not enough sun.  The leaves are narrow and dark green.  The plants get bushy if they have lots of room.  The seed pods are large and very striking.  They bloom in mid-summer and prefer a full sun exposure.  Once established, they are drought tolerant.  It emerges from the soil quite late in spring, so it is important to be careful not to disturb the roots.

Check out the following nurseries for native plants

Native Plants in Claremont – https://www.nativeplants.ca/

John’s Garden in Uxbridge – https://johnsgarden.wordpress.com/about/

Grow Wild in Omemee – http://www.nativeplantnursery.ca/

In Praise of Sunflowers

By Mary-Jane Pilgrim, Master Gardener

The weather outside at this time of year is a bit frightful, so as a diversion, let’s vault ourselves temporarily into mid-summer and learn about that giant of summer flowers — the sunflower. In all their colourful glory, these plants are a happy sight to behold—but there’s more to their nature than just beauty. The multipurpose plants deliver healthy snacks for us, useful oils, and seeds for our feathered friends.

Sunflowers are members of the family Asteraceae, which all form a composite head (capitulum) made of masses of simple flowers (florets) that each produce a seed if successfully pollinated. Sunflowers typically have between 1,000 to 1,400 florets, and potential seeds, per head. The capitulum is surrounded by petals, making the whole structure seem like one single flower. The latin name for the common sunflower is Helianthus.

Butterflies, beneficial insects, hummingbirds and birds flock to sunflower heads for food, pollen and nectar. Insects enjoy the flower pollen and nectar while birds feast on the seeds. Plant tall varieties along a fence to block an unsightly view, or try them in the back of the flower border or along the side of the house or garage. You can also use sunflowers instead of corn in a Native American ‘Three Sister’s Garden’: Plant pole beans to grow up the clump of 3-week old sunflower stalks, and plant winter squash and pumpkins around the base of the clump 3 weeks after the beans. The beans will climb up the flowers and the low-growing squash will shade out weeds and prevent the soil from drying out.

The flowers not only look like the sun; they need a lot of it. They grow best with about six to eight hours a day but more is even better. They can grow as tall as 16 feet, although many varieties have been developed to thrive at different heights. Flowers planted too close together will compete and not blossom to their full potential.

Sunflowers display a behavior called heliotropism when they are young–the flower buds and blossoms will face east in the morning and follow the sun as the earth moves during the day. However, as the flowers get heavier during seed production, the stems will stiffen and the mature flower heads will generally remain facing east.

Although sunflowers can be started indoors in individual peat pots, it is easiest to sow seeds directly into the soil after all danger of spring frost is past. However, where the growing season is short, sunflowers can be safely planted up to 2 weeks before the last expected spring frost.

Resources

Sunflower Facts – Things You Didn’t Know About Sunflowers

How to Plant, Grow and Care for Sunflowers: The Old Farmer’s Almanac

Helianthus: Wikipedia

Winter Bird Treats

By Lois Scott, Master Gardener

I have been fortunate this winter to have the ability and opportunity to carry on with regular, ‘socially distanced’ walks in my neighbourhood and to be able to enjoy the winter interest provided by nature. 

On several walks I was quite excited to see small flocks of Pine Grosbeaks and Cedar Waxwings feeding on ornamental crabapple trees (Malus species) in two neighbouring gardens that I pass by.  For me it was a special treat to see Pine Grosbeaks, as they are a somewhat irregular winter visitor to the Kawarthas.  Their breeding range is in the boreal forest and, according to Drew Monkman, if there is food they stay put. If not they travel south where you may see them on feeders or fruit trees, such as crabapples.  

Crabapples, typically planted for their flowers, produce colourful fruit that is not only attractive in winter but a potential source of food for birds.  In choosing a variety to plant, Landscape Ontario recommends considering resistance to disease and insects, and fruit persistence, which is important for feeding the birds as the crabapples need to stay on the tree. Another noteworthy fact is that birds can be picky eaters and in their estimation apparently not all crabapples are created equal.  For example they like ‘Prairiefire’ whereas they do not like ‘Adams’, ‘Donald Wyman’ or ‘Red Jewel’.  Who knew!  I don’t know what the varieties are of the two different trees I saw birds in but the tree in the first photograph shows the tree fairly well stripped of fruit. In the second photo there is still plenty of fruit that they have not come back to finish. 

Crabapple trees in the author’s neighbourhood

There are other excellent choices of native trees and shrubs that can provide winter food sources for birds.  The hackberry (Celtis occidentalis), a shade tree that works well in ‘difficult’ urban areas, hawthorns (Crataegus species), highbush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum), and red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) are a few good choices. 

For a more comprehensive list of crabapple varieties and other native species to feed the birds in winter please check out the following links.

For more general information on attracting birds to your garden please check out Master Gardener Judy Bernard’s excellent posts on our Peterborough Master Gardeners website.

Year in Review, Part II

By Suzanne Seryck, Master Gardener

I wrote the first part of this two-part blog on a beautiful fall day, with a temperature of around 20 degrees and blue skies. Today as I’m writing it is the type of winter day that I love, temperature hovering around zero, snow on the ground and I don’t need 4 or 5 layers of clothes on when I go out for a walk. The first part of my year in review blog that was published back in November described some of the many challenges and learning experiences I faced gardening in 2020, including growing Sicilian zucchinis, handling Creeping Charlie in my lawn, and becoming more selective when deadheading. In this second section I’ll continue on with the challenges, including staking perennials, trying to grow an English cucumber and battling with the wildlife over the grapes, blueberries and currants.  

Now I have to admit before I start, that staking is not really my thing; it typically needs planning and thinking ahead. You can stake reactively as I tend to do, but by then it is often too late; the plants still look untidy, flop over adjacent plants and you can see the stakes, which for me personally is an issue. Last spring my iris, lupins and especially peonies grew so tall so quickly that they easily outgrew the old peony cages that surrounded them.  My fall asters also fell over as they hadn’t been staked at all and were easily over six feet tall. So this spring I need to be more preventative and stake as early as I can. There are many different types of stakes that you can use such as grow-through supports as in peony cages or tomato cages. These work well if the plants are not too tall, although I do have some of the larger tomato cages in my garden. Grid-type supports also work well for plants that bloom heavily, and for irises I tend to use single stakes that I can just move around the garden as needed. You can also make your own supports using bamboo stakes or tree branches and twine or even chicken wire. Most gardening catalogues, such as Veseys or Lee Valley sell plant supports in many styles. For me however, I tend to find them quite expensive and tend to work with tomato cages or make my own.  For more information please see the following article: https://www.bhg.com/gardening/flowers/perennials/staking-and-training-perennials/

English cucumbers, what can I say, I still tend to prefer these over other varieties that definitely grow much better here. English cucumbers tend to be longer, thinner, with an edible skin and in my opinion taste better. They do not however like cold temperatures, so if planting in the garden ensure that all danger of frost has long passed, and in fact, wait a further week or two after that. They also have shallow roots so need more frequent watering. I also find that for me they grow stronger and healthier if I provide some type of shade when it gets really hot. English cucumbers will also grow straighter and longer if the fruit can hang, so growing on a vertical support works really well. However, after saying all that, I still am unable to grow them as well as I would like and they are definitely very labour-intensive. So for this year, I am going to grow a different variety, although in saying that I have not tried growing cucumbers in containers, so that might be an option to try. Greta’s Organic Gardens have some interesting cucumber varieties for seed purchase, including Crystal Apple Cucumber that is shaped like an apple when mature, a Miniature White Cucumber which needs no peeling and is eaten when smaller than 3 inches. Lastly a Spacemaster Picking Cucumber that can be grown in either a container or a hanging basket. This company is one of many Organic seed companies based in Ontario. https://www.seeds-organic.com/pages/contact-us

And last but not least, one of my favourite subjects last year in the garden was the wildlife, namely the dreaded squirrels and rabbits. We have a few different structures that we have built to keep out the animals, including:

And:

Not to mention:

This last picture shows simple plant trays with a mesh bottom lying upside down over new seedlings. I use these both to deter the animals and also to help keep the seedlings shady. However, none of these prevented the squirrels from taking bites out of most of my tomatoes, eating all my grapes, of which we had a bountiful crop, and the birds from eating my blueberries and white currants. The previous year I had put nets over the blueberries and currants which had helped, however since then I have read a few articles stating that the types of netting I was using could damage both birds and other wildlife so I was reluctant to put it on again. I have since done more research but not found anything yet suitable for my needs. However it is only January and will likely get a lot colder, which gives me plenty of time to do more investigation and come up with something suitable.

Gardening with Ferns

By Cheryl Harrison, Master Gardener

Ferns are fascinating plants! They evolved more than 350 million years ago. Ferns and their allies were the most common plants during prehistoric times. Today, there are over 12,000 fern species growing everywhere except at the poles.

Ferns are special in the gardening world. They are exotic and beautiful but not as flamboyant as many plants. We have developed a fern “dictionary” to describe them. For example, an entire fern leaf is actually called a frond and the stem is called a stipe. Ferns reproduce via spores which are not the same as seeds and ferns do not produce flowers. If you study ferns, you may be a pteridologist….oh my!

Fern propagation means collecting spores or bulblets. Fern propagation, using spores or bulblets, is explained here . There is only one native Ontario fern that produces bulblets. It is the bulblet fern or Cystopteris bulbifera. The easiest way to obtain a new fern is, of course, to buy one. A list of local vendors is below. Some ferns spread via rhizomes or underground runners, just split the root with a sharp shovel and separate out the fronds of the new plant. You may also split ferns with fibrous roots as you would many perennials, once they reach an adequate size, again using a sharp shovel. You may split then plant ferns in the spring or fall. Check out your friend’s gardens…you may find a fern, or two, growing that your friend may be willing to share. Please do not harvest from the wild. Some fern species no longer grow in the wild because of over harvesting.

Maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum), Author’s garden

Ferns may be used in your garden as an exclamation point or a secret quiet spot, mixed in with your other shade loving perennials or in a woodland garden. I have some ferns mixed in my gardens now but 2021 is the year that I plan to tackle the creation of a woodland garden. I have already put in an order for some ferns including the bulblet fern (Cystopteris bulbifera), ghost fern (Athyrium X Ghost) and the ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). This grouping should work well together because they all prefer shade or part sun and moist soil with lots of organic matter. I plan to amend their location with compost and to mulch after planting to maintain moisture and reduce weeds. These plants are perennials so I will expect to see them again next year.

Ferns are beautiful plants whose graceful, arching fronds would make a great addition to your garden!

Resources

American Fern Society

Ontario Ferns

Peterson Guide to Ferns, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Second Edition (Sept. 26 2005), ISBN-10: 0618394060

Where to Buy Ferns

Gardens Plus, Peterborough

Ground Covers Unlimited, Bethany

Native Plants in Claremont

Please support your local nurseries. Many of them, including those listed above, carry the more unusual plants that you will not likely find at the big box stores.

Ground Covers

By Judy Bernard, Master Gardener

Now that you’ve read with delight all about  the plants that are a Christmas Tradition, I’m turning my attention to a favourite group of plants that I enjoy for my garden. Ground covers.

Also known as living mulch, ground covers can go a long way to enhancing your garden. Not only can they stand alone as beautiful additions to your garden, they can also enhance other existing plants by pairing  them with a complementary shrub or perennial. Like mulch, ground covers perform much the same purposes: they insulate the soil from the hot sun, help to keep moisture at the roots of plants, choke out weeds by preventing germination of  weed seeds due to the shade they produce, help protect the soil from erosion through their network of roots and they’re easy to care for. Ground covers also don’t need to be a certain size, although most are less than 30cm tall; think of a collection of large hostas under a treed area, or on a shaded slope that’s difficult to reach with a lawn mower. Although they spread, they shouldn’t be invasive.

Many different types of plants can function as ground covers. From perennials (I’ve already mentioned hostas) to herbs, to shrubs and to mosses – almost any type of low growing plant can function as ground cover. Some are best adapted to shade, as are woodland plants like wild ginger which finds a welcome home under deciduous trees. Others grow best in sun, like creeping phlox which works well with clematis to keep the soil cool at the roots of the vine.

Creeping thymes can not only be walked on, they release their wonderful aroma as you stroll through the patch. They’re wonderful not only for a rockery, but also in between pavers or stepping stones. Since they can be walked on, they also work well as a path through a large flower bed to allow gardening work to be done.

Ground covers can be found for almost any soil type and growing conditions. Many, like sedums, adapt to poor soil, are drought tolerant  and will grow quickly once established to fill in that troublesome area where grass doesn’t want to grow. The article below lists several evergreen ground covers with helpful information about each. Most will grow in our area:

11 Best Evergreen Ground Cover Plants That Make Your Garden Look Greener & Better

Ground covers in the author’s garden

This photo shows two of my favourite ground covers: cranesbill geranium in the foreground, and creeping phlox in the background. Both are keeping the ground cool for the clematis on the arbor.

Favourites from My Bookshelf

By Lois Scott, Master Gardener

The Internet conveniently provides seemingly endless avenues when searching for information on best practices for gardening but there are times I prefer to turn to my bookshelf for a favourite and trusted author.  Here is a collection of books that I find useful in a practical sense or just to reread to refresh my mind on certain topics. 

How Plants Work by Linda Chalker-Scott, a well-known “associate professor and extension urban horticulturist at Washington State University” is an excellent resource for me.   Quoting the back cover “this book arms you with the information that will change the way you garden.  You’ll learn how to fertilize and prune more effectively, how to weed less and how to determine which garden products are worth your time and money”.  She discusses the science of how plants work but most importantly for me, translates that into practical science-based practices for my garden.  As a bonus it does include attractive, instructive photographs.  Dr. Chalker-Scott is a very engaging author.  I also recommend her other books The Informed Gardener and The Informed Gardener Blooms Again which are both collections of her Garden Myths.

What A Plant Knows:  A Field Guide to the Senses by Daniel Chamovitz is another fascinating book about how plants work.  In this book Dr. Chamovitz discusses the science around what a plant sees, smells, feels, hears (or doesn’t hear), how it knows where it is and what it remembers.  This book is beautifully written, very engaging and the science quite accessible.

The Pruning Book by Lee Reich is very useful, practical and well written. .  Dr. Reich takes the reader through the basics of pruning, the tools and the plants, including ornamental trees and bushes, evergreens, vines, fruit and nut trees/bushes, houseplants and herbaceous plants.  For the adventurous he also describes specialized techniques such as topiary and espalier.  There are many useful photographs and diagrams along the way that are both instructive and attractive.

I am looking forward to adding to the bookshelf in the near future.  I do have two of Doug Tallamy’s books on order from The Hunter Street Book Store in Peterborough where the above books can also be ordered.   The Peterborough Public Library has a hard copy of The Informed Gardener, and electronic copies of How Plants Work and What a Plant Knows.  Also available at the library are electronic copies of two of Lee Reich’s other books Weedless Gardening and The Ever Curious Gardener.  I am also always interested in other gardener’s favourite books to potentially add to my collection. 

Bromeliads

By Sharleen Pratt, Master Gardener

Continuing on a similar theme to last week’s blog on Orchids by Master Gardener Cheryl Harrison, I thought I would touch on another family of plants that are tropical and exotic; the Bromeliaceae family.  Known as Bromeliads, it is a large family which includes more than 50 genera and at least 2,500 known species which are native mainly from an area stretching from the southern U.S. to Central and South America.

Before COVID, we would do an annual visit to the Sarasota area in Florida.  One of my favourite places to visit is the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.  Selby Garden botanists have made hundreds of expeditions into the tropics and subtropics and have contributed to the most diverse living and preserved collection of epiphytes in the world.  They have a greenhouse that is beautiful to walk through with very knowledgeable volunteers to answer questions.

Many bromeliads are stiff-leaved, rosette-forming plants with brightly coloured leaves, bracts and flowers.  The majority of them are epiphytic, meaning that they grow on the branches of trees without taking nutrients from the tree.  They can also be lithophytic which means they reside on rocks, and the remaining are generally terrestrial, meaning that they grow in soil.  Bromeliad flowers can last several months, but they generally only bloom once.  The mother plant will produce new plantlets, also called ‘pups’.  They are incredibly resilient but do not like to be overwatered.  Their roots are usually used for balance and not for transferring nutrients.  Instead, the leaves take in all of the water and nutrients the plant needs.  They never breath out carbon dioxide almost as if they hold their breath in order not to lose moisture.  It is a very special photosynthesis.

A picture of a Bromeliad Tree taken at the Edison & Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers

Many bromeliads have leaves that form a reservoir to hold water at their bases (known as tank bromeliads), with the largest holding up to two gallons of water.  Types that don’t hold water are called xerophytic or atmospheric bromeliads.

One of the most well-known Bromeliads is in the Ananas genera.  This is the pineapple, Ananas comosus.  Europeans first found out about bromeliads when Columbus went on his second trip to the New World in 1493.  The pineapple was being cultivated by the Carib tribe in the West Indies.  After colonization, it was rapidly transported to all areas of the tropics and became a very important fruit.

Another genus is Tillandsia.  It is the largest group in the family and this genus is also known as “air plants”.  Most do not form tanks and have grey-green leaves and are densely covered with fuzzy scales that give the plants their characteristic colour.  Tillandsia require more humidity than other bromeliads and tend to dehydrate in the dry air of most homes, but can still be grown successfully with more frequent watering.

Spanish Moss falls under this genus, Tillandsia usneoides.  It is very prevalent in Florida and is neither Spanish nor a moss.  Unlike other epiphytes that have roots to anchor themselves to their host tree, Spanish moss has tiny scales on its leaves and its curved structure to cling to its host tree.  It is important for diversity as its large mats that drip from trees harbor a great variety of insects, birds and bats.  In Florida, you usually see Spanish Moss clinging to Live Oaks.

Author standing under a Live Oak tree covered in Spanish Moss


Bromeliads will survive for months or even years under less than ideal conditions.  They need satisfactory light, temperature and humidity.  It is best to use water that is not softened.  You should use a potting mix that holds moisture yet drains quickly.  Orchid bark mixed with course perlite and humus is good for most bromeliads.  The small air plants only need to be misted with a spray bottle or put in a bowl of water for an hour.  If you would like to learn more about these amazing plants, visit University of Wisconsin-Madison.