Permaculture: Where do I start?

By Suzanne Seryck, Master Gardener

So what do gardeners do in the winter? Once we’ve read all our seed magazines and compiled our purchasing lists, or designed new or changes to existing perennial beds, or decided on our vegetable crop rotation for the upcoming season, or read a new gardening book, or watched some gardening videos or TED talks, or found ourselves in the middle of taking a gardening course, what next? Personally, once I’ve exhausted all these possibilities, I tend to reread my favourite gardening books. I have an incredibly bad memory and find it really helps me when I reread the same books over and over; hoping eventually something will sink in. My books to reread this year are both permaculture-related: Toby Hemingway’s “Gaia’s Garden” and Rosemary Morrow’s “Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture”.

When I first became interested in permaculture a number of years ago, I started reading books and watching videos by the two founders, Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. The concept, ethics, and principles resonated with me, but I have to admit that I struggled based on the literature available at that time, to understand how to translate this into my own Canadian garden. It was not until a couple of years later that I attended a couple of local permaculture design courses and read the book by Toby Hemingway who focuses on North American gardens, that I felt confident enough to bring some of those concepts and methods into my home garden

As I mentioned in my last blog, permaculture is a design system, a set of guidelines, principles and practices for sustainable living and land use, working with nature in a continuous cycle that benefits both people and wildlife. As with anything new or overwhelming, it is easy to be deterred by the big picture.  Instead, focus on smaller ideas or concepts. If you start implementing smaller more manageable tasks, it will give you confidence to tackle the larger concepts.

The following are a few easy-to-implement permaculture techniques to get you started:

  1. Sheet mulching. This was actually the first group activity I performed in my first design course.  It can also be called lasagna gardening. Permaculture encompasses a no-dig philosophy focusing on building soil life. Sheet mulching allows you to create new beds whilst eliminating weeds and building up the health of the soil. It is also a lot healthier on your back. You simply lay a heavy layer of newspaper or cardboard over the area and top it with 12 inches or so of organic mulch.
  2. Keyhole garden beds. Keyhole beds are often used in permaculture because they maximize use of space, whilst building soil fertility.  They decrease irrigation needs and are easy to plant, harvest and maintain. The bed can be either raised or not, and is often created in a circular pattern which decreases the space required for paths and increases space for plants. This type of bed is most often used for growing herbs & vegetables and because of the circular design, plants with different growing requirements can be planted together often creating different microclimates. For more information: https://permaculturefoodforest.wordpress.com/2016/04/14/keyhole-gardens/
  3. Creating gardening communities or guilds. In permaculture, a guild can be defined as a grouping of plants, trees, animals and insects that work together protecting their health, habitat and productivity. Probably one of the most familiar guilds is the Three Sisters Guild in which squash, corn and beans are grown together; each one supporting and benefiting the others. The beans grow up the corn and provide nitrogen, whilst the squash mulches and covers the soil. In my last garden, I grew apple tree guilds, surrounding each apple tree with daffodils in the spring (deter predators from chewing bark), comfrey and yarrow, and herbs such as dill & fennel along with chives & onions.
  4. Multiple stories or forest gardens. As an avid gardener and someone who has difficulty saying ‘enough is enough’ when it comes to plants–and also the owner of a small city garden–this technique is one I am especially interested in. The idea is that a garden can have multiple stories or layers; from a low herb or ground cover layer up to perennials, shrubs, small trees and finally the canopy trees. The plants in each layer combine and support each other to create and maintain a healthy ecosystem.
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Vegetable garden incorporating annuals and perennials

Permaculture is much more than the simple examples I have given.  It can encompass everything from designing landscapes and buildings, to water and waste management. The benefits for me include enriching the land, feeding and providing habitat, growing food for my family, and giving me somewhere to unwind and feel good about life. However, I am omitting one very important benefit for myself–by incorporating some permaculture practices into my garden, the garden tends to look after itself much more with less interference and work for me!

Thank goodness the seed catalogues have arrived…

By Mary-Jane Pilgrim, Master Gardener

“Thank goodness the seed catalogues have arrived… I was about to start cleaning my house!”

It starts with the dream.

There’s no better time than now to  dive into a good seed catalogue and start planning for the upcoming growing season. Seed catalogues can be a great resource for bulbs and unique seeds, and offer a far bigger selection than what you can find in your local garden centre. You’ll find inspiration and will likely discover new plants that you must have in your 2020 garden.

You’ll be the most successful if you pick the seed companies that are closest to where you live, or in the same growing region as you. However, you can still have success ordering from a company farther away, but you’ll have to be careful not to order a plant that isn’t in your growing zone.

Below are some popular seed companies from across Canada, with some that are also in close proximity to the Peterborough, ON, area.

Florabunda Seeds

Whether you are an avid gardener or just beginning to get your hands dirty, Florabunda Seeds in Keene, ON, has a wide variety of heirloom and unusual flower, vegetable and herb seeds. They pride themselves in their untreated, non-GMO, and non-Hybrid offerings. They package generously by measurement and not by seed count.  Download catalogueRequest a catalogue.

OSC Seeds

OSC Seeds from Kitchener, ON, features a selection of high-quality seed packets, perfectly suited for the Canadian climate and ready for planting in your garden. Their full line of products includes 30 herbs, 250 vegetables, 240 annuals and 100 perennials & biennials. Request a free catalogue

William Dam Seeds

William Dam Seeds is a family-run company located just outside of Dundas, Ontario, supplying small farmers and gardeners in Canada with seed for food, flowers and soil building. They are proud to offer a varied catalogue of many different seed varieties that are not chemically treated, and some of the seeds are certified organic as well. You can download their online catalogue, or request a mailed copy via their contact page.

Natural Seed Bank

Natural Seed Bank is an online retailer of garden seeds. They sell various organic and untreated garden seeds. Located in Port Hope, Ontario, Natural Seed Bank is 100 percent Canadian owned and operated. All of their seeds are non-GMO and untreated, and many selections are organic. They’re committed to never selling GMO products.

Richters

Richters is your go-to for everything herbal. Located in Goodwood, Ontario, Richters has been growing and selling herbs since 1969. Check out their online catalogue or request a copy to be mailed out.  Online catalogueRequest a catalogue.

Veseys

Veseys is one of the premier seed, bulb and garden supply sites in North America. Located on Prince Edward Island, Veseys has 75 years of history providing products, services, and advice to gardeners.  Be sure to head over and subscribe for your free catalogue. They put on many fantastic specials, have quality products and outstanding customer service. Request a catalogue.

Resources

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Gardening Resolutions for A New Year

by Emma Murphy, Master Gardener

As this decade comes to a close, I like to think that I over the past ten years that have learned some things about gardening. And with that in mind, I’ve set a few New Year’s resolutions to guide me through this next year (and decade).

1. Be Better at Cleaning My Tools

I have some great tools – my Felco #12 secateurs/pruners (several pairs), my delightful drain spade, and my Japanese hori hori knife. But I am neglectful and do not clean these well during the season and especially at the end of the gardening year. My resolution to improve my tool maintenance for next year. Some guidance here and here.

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2. Make a Plan

I was basically back to square one in my garden a few years ago after a major house renovation. Since then we have installed some hardscaping and I have tried to replan my gardens. I’m 15 years older than when I first did my gardens, so my plan needs to take into account my aging and energy level, so I have eliminated those fussy perennials and focused more on a garden built on flowering shrubs that are lower maintenance. But I don’t have a plan, and my engineer husband keeps saying “where’s the plan?”. So my resolution is to spend this January laying out a plan for spring, rather than just going with my gut.

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3. Don’t Order Too Many Seeds

This will be a tough one. After all who hasn’t looked out their window in January at the snowy landscape while reviewing seed catalogues and dreaming of a perfect garden? The diversity available via seed companies is just astonishing these days, and it’s nice to grow something that your friends don’t have and that you can keep seed for the next year! But we all tend to indulge and over purchase, so my resolution is to have a specific place for any seeds that I order (see previous note for a plan), and to test all the existing seeds I have for viability like this.

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4. Share my Knowledge and Start a Blog

While I write a blog for the Peterborough Master Gardeners on a regular basis, I’d like to start a garden blog of my own. The challenge? Just finding the time when I work full time and write for a living. My resolution is to spend January getting a basic blog set up, and then to try and write once a week starting in February. I’ll share a link once it’s up and running, and you can all hold me to task for getting it off the ground. The great part is there is lots of good advice on how to start a blog out there.

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Create a Holistic Garden

I am passionate that my garden should be more than just beautiful flowers – it should be a wonderful habitat for birds and bugs and critters and pollinators, and everything in between. I want to know that I am making a difference that contributes to supporting our local ecology and habitat. My resolution is to continue focusing on this as I re-establish my garden, and share my knowledge with others so that we can all make a difference.

Wishing everyone a Happy New Year and a wonderful 2020 gardening season, wherever you may be.

GDD

Last Minute Festive Plant Care Tips

by Christine Freeburn, Master Gardener

Christmas is only a few days away and hopefully you have all your cookies baked, your shopping done, presents wrapped under the tree and your decorations up. Here are a few last minute tips to help you and your plants through the next week.

If you are taking plants to family or friends, bundle them up before putting in a warm car so they won’t be shocked from the drastic temperatures. If you buy a poinsettia, be sure the clerk wraps it well as they are very susceptible to drafts. If you are taking the plant home before you give it away, remove the paper or plastic wrapper to let the plant breathe once you get it into the warmth of your home. Check the soil to be sure it is damp and water if necessary. The same applies to any arrangement you might be transporting. Keep warm and watered so the plants are happy.

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If you have leftover cut evergreen pieces, now is the time to use them up. BC cedar and Ontario white pine look the nicest. Make little arrangements for in your bathroom either in oasis or in water. Place stems in vases along with fresh flowers. Lay fresh greens on mantles, side tables or your dinner table. Add stems around your amaryllis bulb or with your paperwhites. You can purchase a WiltProof product which when sprayed sparingly on fresh greens, will prolong their life. Please be mindful of fire hazards when you are decorating with fresh greens.

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And have a Merry Christmas and a Happy Holiday Season!

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The Christmas Rose: Helleborus niger

By Judy Bernard, Master Gardener

Nothing warms a home up as much as plants do. At this time of the year there are so many options to choose from: Poinsettias ranging in colour from white to deep reds, Cyclamen, Christmas Cactus, Amaryllis, Rosemary to name a few. There is one, however, that is usually found in garden centres in the spring but which one can occasionally find in a grocery store or florist in the fall, and that is the Christmas Rose. Its botanical name is Helleborus niger and its common name is Hellebore.

Helleborus niger is a hardy perennial in the Raniculaceae or buttercup family. It has dark green evergreen foliage and delicate white flowers resembling a wild rose. They are hardy to zones 3-4. Bloom times vary from November to February/March, depending on the location. They like semi-shade and grow well in sheltered areas in well-draining soils.

If you are fortunate enough to find one in your local store, not only will you have a conversation piece, you will be able to plant it outside in your garden and enjoy it for many years.

Links:

Photo credit: Sue Flinders Adams: After being purchased in a  grocery store in November/December, it was planted at Portage Lakehouse, Haliburton and bloomed under the ice and snow the following spring. Picture taken April, 2017.

Falling in Love with Lilies

By Mary Jane Parker, Master Gardener

Many years ago, while driving down Water Street in Lakefield, I was stopped in my tracks by a garden full of 7 to 8 foot tall trumpet lilies in every colour shade imaginable. I stopped many times to admire them and talked to the gentleman that owned the garden. He urged me to join the North American Lily Society (NALS). So began my love affair with the genus lilium.

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Lilium Michiganense

I have been a NALS member since at least 2005. I firmly believe that belonging to a specialist group is the best way to learn about a genus. Four times a year a newsletter is sent out with articles about current research, amazing new cultivars and important people.

But best of all, NALS has an amazing seed exchange. I have ordered and received seed annually from countries all over the world.

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Lilium Martagon

This coming year, for the first time that I can remember, the NALS annual meeting is being held at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington from July 8th to 12th. I am so excited because I will get to meet some of the people I’ve only ready about from all over the world and play host to such an amazing group of people. I will be able to participate in 5 days of exciting events: a lily bulb auction, various garden tours and seminars among other events.

For more info click HERE.

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Lilium Regale

Book Review: 100 Easy-To-Grow Native Plants for Canadian Gardens

By Sharleen Pratt, Master Gardener

100 Easy-to-Grow Natvie Plants_RGB 300This book is, without a doubt, one of my favourite go-to gardening books! The new revised third edition of Lorraine Johnson’s book, 100 Easy-to-Grow Native Plants for Canadian Gardens, is a testament to Lorraine’s expertise. She writes in the forward that “one of the greatest satisfactions of growing native plants is that you are supporting a complex web of ecological relationships that are the basis of a healthy, resilient ecosystem.” Lorraine Johnson is the former president of the North American Native Plant Society and the author of numerous other books. She lives in Toronto.

Bloodroot (1)The photos by Andrew Layerle, along with detailed descriptions of the plants, make this book most helpful when trying to decide what native plants you would like to incorporate into your garden. I think many of us can relate to her point that “gardeners tend to be voyeuristic creatures and plant lists are our chaste form of porn”! We all crave the perfect plant and often browse through books over the winter months with dreams of starting a new garden and we wait patiently for the spring weather that allows us to once again get our hands dirty.

Wood PoppyThe plants are divided into a number of different categories and Lorraine does a good job at listing the common name (although she warns there are sometimes many), the botanical name, the height, blooming period, exposure, moisture, habitat and range. She gives a good description, the maintenance and requirements, along with suggestions on propagation and good companions. I love that she also mentions the wildlife benefits of each plant.

Pasque (1)Lorraine has also included Quick-Reference Charts at the back of the book that separate the plants by region as well as specific conditions, such as acidic soil, water requirements, etc. She has lists of plants suitable to prairie habitat, drought-tolerant plants, plants for moist areas, and plants that attract butterflies and other pollinators.

I have grown several of her suggested native plants, such as wild ginger, solomon’s seal, pasque flower, foamflower, wood poppy, dutchman’s breeches, cardinal flower, butterfly milkweed, bottle gentian, bloodroot, and big bluestem .. I love them all!

Check out this book over the winter months. I guarantee you will not be disappointed.

 

‘Tis the Season … for Poinsettias!

By Cheryl Harrison, Master Gardener

When I was growing up, my mother always had a big green and red poinsettia sitting in the centre of the dining table during the holiday season. By the middle of January, it had lost all of its leaves so out it went in the trash. Oh yes, we also called it a “pointsetta”.

In Mexico, where it grows wild as a leggy shrub or small tree, the native plant (Euphorbia pulcherrima) has been associated with the Christian Christmas holiday since the 16th century. Thanks to Joel Robert Poinsett, the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, poinsettias were introduced to the United States in 1825. They did not really take off, though, until the California based Ecke family grew plants using a grafting technique discovered by Paul Ecke Sr. in the 1960s.  They began aggressively marketing the holiday season blooming poinsettia as a holiday tradition. In the 1980s, John Dole identified the technique used by the Ecke family to produce their compact poinsettias. This led to many more growers entering the retail market.

Poinsettias are members of the Euphorbia family. The brightly coloured “flowers” are actually bracts (modified leaves). Their bright colour helps to attract pollinators in the wild.poinsettia1

When purchasing poinsettias, look for an erect plant that has dark green leaves down to the soil and fully coloured bracts. The actual flowers, located at the centre of the bract, should be immature and red-tipped or green, not yellow with pollen because these more mature blooms will not last as long as the immature blooms. Plants displayed in plastic sleeves or crowded together may be stressed and deteriorate quickly after purchase. When purchasing any plant, always check for disease or insects. Yellow leaves, wilt or the presence of insects (check the underside of leaves too) always indicate problems and a plant that you do not want.

Poinsettias are not poisonous to humans but may cause pets to experience vomiting and diarrhea if consumed. Like all Euphorbia, damaged poinsettia stems and flowers exude a white sap that may cause skin irritation to susceptible individuals and pets.

There are over 100 varieties of poinsettias. They come in many colours from the traditional red to white, pink, cream and marbled or speckled.

Poinsettias prefer 6 hours of indirect light each day away from heat registers and cold drafts. Water the plant when it is dry but do not overwater because it may wilt and drop its bracts. (I think that is likely what happened with my mother’s poinsettias!) Allow the water to drain into a saucer after watering then discard this water. Do not let your plant sit in water. If you would like to keep your plant past the holiday season, fertilize it once a month with a houseplant fertilizer once the plant has stopped blooming.

Poinsettias may be put outside in the summer after all danger of frost has passed. But if you would like it to rebloom during the following holiday season, bring the plant back indoors before frost. Then, beginning in October, keep it in total darkness for 14 hours each night. The combination of total darkness and warm, bright days should cause the bracts to colour. This might be fun to try but to guarantee that you have a blooming poinsettia during the following holidays, purchase a new one and compost your old plant.

Poinsettias have long been associated with the holiday season. They come in several colours which will help to add holiday cheer to any home decor. Enjoy them while they last!

For more information on poinsettia care and reblooming, please see the links below.

Becoming the Caretaker of your Garden

By Suzanne Seryck, Master Gardener

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

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

The following are some of the practices that I follow:

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

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

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

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

For further information on permaculture:

10 Great Christmas Gifts for Gardeners!

 

By Mary-Jane Pilgrim, Master Gardener

It’s not too early to think of Christmas gifts for the special gardeners in your life. Every mini-cactus-755542_640gardener has a long list of things they wish they had because many of these items will make their gardening hobby just a little bit easier.  Also, most of them will rarely treat themselves.

Christmas gifts for gardeners can be purchased at nurseries that remain open in the fall, at local home & garden stores, online at Lee Valley Tools or via any other local or online suppliers.  Hopefully, the following suggestions will help you to surprise the green-fingered folk in your life.

  1. Plants! A small succulent planter, a unique and weird looking cactus, a fancy orchid, an amaryllis bulb or an african violet for indoors can spruce up a cold winter.
  2. Basic Garden Tools.  Who among us doesn’t need another/new garden tool?
    1. Lee Valley Root Knife (my go-to weapon)
    2. A new pair of secateurs (pruners).  My choice is the Felco #6, great for smaller hands.
    3. A padded garden kneeler or good quality set of knee pads
  3. Salves and Soap, Especially for Working Hands. There are many items like garden salves and soaps with hydrating formulas & great scents that will always be appreciated by anyone unwrapping them on Christmas Day.
  4. For our Feathered Friends. A  good squirrel-proof bird feeder or a birdhouse, and some good quality birdseed will go miles to attracting useful, pleasant-sounding visitors to your yard all winter.bird-feeder-4032907_960_720
  5. Magazines. A subscription to a Canadian gardening magazine about growing perennials or native plants or about water gardens is always appreciated and will delight the recipient monthly or bi-monthly.
  6. GLOVES!  My favourites are the nitrile Gardena brand — stretchy but grippy.  I go through several pairs of these each season.
  7. A transplant shovel, a new garden hoe or a step-on weeder. These items are not “must have” but “would be nice” so gardeners will rarely purchase them for themselves.  Believe it or not, there have been advances in these tools in the last 20 years!  For example, my favourite new shovel has a super-sharp cutting edge, and an enlarged “step on” bracket so the middle of my foot doesn’t get sore with heavy digging.  Very nice.
  8. Stocking Stuffers. Stocking stuffers of heirloom seeds, plant markers, a mini nail brush, some twine or plant ties are welcome unique gifts.
  9. A Year Round Gift. An inexpensive membership to local Horticultural Society like the Peterborough Horticultural Society offers you discounts at many local nurseries, plant exchanges, plant shows, socializing, and the opportunity to hear good speakers throughout the year. A great stocking stuffer for $20.
  10. PGS-logo-tinyA Garden Show! Treat someone to a trip to Canada Blooms or the awesome Peterborough Garden Show — $10 each for “enjoy all weekend” admission on April 24, 25 and 26, 2020; our 20th fabulous show!

So, why don’t you surprise your favourite gardener with a garden-related gift this Christmas season?  Hoping that this list helps with your decisions.  Happy shopping!