Scree Gardening

By Cheryl Harrison, Master Gardener

My casual interest in scree gardens became a burning desire to have one (you know the feeling) when I went on my first Peterborough Master Gardener garden tour in 2017. We visited a nursery that had amazing demonstration scree and rock gardens. I was smitten!

A scree garden is found in nature. Small rocks and gravel travel down the side of a mountain because of the freeze-thaw action on the rockface. This material accumulates in crevices, on rock shelves and at the mountain base. It drains well and is home to plants that survive on only rain. Scree gardens are good for areas that are already rocky, sandy or do not have a lot of soil to begin with. However, they can be replicated pretty much anywhere with a raised bed to ensure good drainage. A raised bed is especially important if you have clay soil. Choose a sunny site that is not overshadowed by trees. You don’t want the constant challenge of leaf litter on your garden. As when creating any new garden, make sure all weeds and grass are removed before you start.

Different sources quote different mixes for the actual garden “soil” to use in your raised bed. I used what I had for mine. This consisted of some larger rocks in the bottom, and then a layer of gravel, then mostly sand, and gravel mixed with some garden soil. The sand, gravel, and garden soil mixture was used to fill the spaces in the rocks up to the top of my raised bed. Remember that you are trying to replicate nature so your scree must have excellent drainage and not be overly rich.

I chose plants that I knew could take dryer soils and thrive in my Southern Ontario garden with it’s summer heat and high humidity. There are lots of lists of potential scree and rock garden plants on the internet. Some local nurseries carry plants that will thrive in well drained conditions. Once that you have found plants that will grow, as with any garden, choose plants that will give you the look that you want ie. colour, texture, height and spread.

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Author’s garden

In her book “Pocket Gardening”, gardening writer Marjorie Harris talks about how to maintain the scree and rock gardens. Ms. Harris recommends topdressing the garden with leaf mold and coarse sharp sand or 3/8 inch gravel when plants are dormant which means very early spring or late fall.

Have fun with it and make your garden into what makes you happy!

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Author’s garden

Resources

Anna’s Perennials –  Ontario Rock Garden & Hardy Plant Society –  Rock Wall Gardens

Adding Diversity to Garden Design

By Suzanne Seryck, Master Gardener

In June this year, I was sitting with my son on the deck looking at the backyard. He asked me why I had so much grass in the garden. Now, he is definitely not a gardener, so I was a little confused until I realized he was referring to all of the daylily leaves. I felt it my duty to point out the stunning delphiniums, peonies, irises, and lupins which were all in bloom. I also tried to explain that in another month or so the garden will be a riot of colour when all the daylilies and coneflowers started flowering. Daylilies have always been my favourite plants; they are hardy, drought tolerant, low maintenance and beautiful in bloom. See our blog post from July 22 describing how daylilies are the perfect perennial. I probably have at least fifty different varieties, all of which I bought over from my last garden four years ago. But as I sat there looking at the garden I did wonder if maybe I should add more diversity.

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Author’s garden in late spring

Shortly after, I was watching my new favourite garden show on Netflix, ‘Big Dreams, Small Spaces’ with Monty Don. If you have not heard of him, Monty Don is something close to a hero to most British gardeners. In this episode, he was relaying a gardening principle to the couple that were designing their new backyard.  He mentioned that for simplicity and cohesiveness “no garden needs more than seven different plants”.  I was trying to remember where the back button was on the remote as I wasn’t sure I’d heard correctly, but he did partially redeem himself when he clarified that statement by saying that you do not have to take this too literally, but that a good garden can be made with just seven different plants. My current garden design is more of an English cottage garden, informal with little space between plants and if I was going to add more diversity this summer, I would definitely have more than seven different plants.

I spent this summer with pen and paper in hand walking around the garden, asking myself if I really needed 20 different variations of pink daylily, some of which even I struggled to tell apart or did I need the same daylily variety in four different places in the garden. I also noticed the daylily blooms had very few insects compared to the spectacular activity around the native plants. I made copious notes in my notebook and labelled many plants I wanted to move or give away. Because of a rising concern for environmentalism and climate change, I also wanted this to be reflected more in my garden. To do this I decided I needed to do the following:

  • Plant more native plants. I have collected seed from most of my native plants including swamp milkweed, culver’s root and liatris and will use these to fill in over the next few years.
  • Add more edibles to the perennial garden. I tend to edge with swiss chard, beets or cardoon. I don’t actually eat the cardoon but I love the foliage on the plant.
  • Choose more plants that have multiple functions, i.e. yarrow which attracts insects, is drought tolerant, is a nutrient accumulator bringing nutrients from deep in the soil and storing them in the leaves, has attractive flowers in many colors, and can be used as a manure tea.
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Author’s garden in summer

I’m excited for next year to see the changes I’ve made. I’m hoping that I have still kept the basic structure of the garden design with the emphasis on the summer color whilst adding more variety, especially pollinator and native plants. I learned this summer that a garden design does not have to be static; it can evolve as your values and beliefs evolve.

The design of your garden can be very personal, ever changing, reflecting who you are. For me it is somewhere where I feel at peace with the world–there is nothing I like more than taking a cup of tea out to the garden in the morning and just sitting and looking around.

September in the Garden

By Mary-Jane Pilgrim, Master Gardener

Fall is in the air.  You can see the days getting shorter, and feel that the temperatures are cooling.  The Canada Geese are grouping; ready to make their noisy trip south.  The boats and camping trailers are also heading south.  The monarchs will soon be leaving us for sunnier climates in Mexico.  It’s that time of year where every living thing in our region starts preparing for the colder seasons to come.monarch2015

In the garden, fall is a great time for planting, dividing, weeding, mulching and planning for spring renovations.  The soil is warm, the days are cooler and the rain is usually frequent.  These three items are a big part of what is needed to get new plantings well established before the snow flies.

Fall Planting

Now is the time to plant buy and plant spring-flowering bulbs like tulips, daffodils, allium, snowdrops and crocus.  Shop early for the best selection.  If you are plagued by squirrels, know that they do not go after daffodils — so fill your basket with these instead of some of the more delicious bulbs like tulips that may just make a tasty snack.

Now is also a great time to plant late season annuals like pansies, kale and cabbage for garden bed interest or for front door planters.  It’s also prime tree and shrub planting time.  Water well until freeze-up.

Fall Dividingrudbeckia

September is a great time to divide some of those perennials that have outgrown their space, or that you’d like to share with others.  Watch for obvious division points for hosta, black-eyed susans, coneflower, iris and daylilies.  Plants will have enough time to establish roots in their new homes if this splitting and replanting is done now.  After splitting, cut back any unnecessary leaves or flower stalks from these to make the transition a little easier for these perennials.

Fall Weeding

Many of us have lost interest in this task by now.  However, if you consider that every weed that remains in your beds is likely to go to seed, and that most weeds carry hundreds of seeds, it’s totally in your best interest to keep those beds as weed-free as possible.  For me, this includes deadheading any self-seeding perennials as well.

Fall Mulching

Add some compost, and a two- to three-inch layer of mulch to beds to get them ready for winter. It’s like putting the comforter on the bed.  You can use garden-centre mulch for this, but I have a neighbour with mature maple trees that provide all of the leaves that I can use.  Leaves are great insulator, and best of all, they’re completely free!

Spring Renovation Planning

Lastly, fall is a great time for you to assess areas of the garden which may need renovation next spring.  I sometimes draw maps of the different plants in my garden beds, and it’s not uncommon to see the words “remove”, “divide” and “move” scrawled across these drawings. You may think that you’ll remember all of this next spring, but I have my bets against you on this one!

Here’s to some great fall preparation to make next spring just a little bit more organized and successful.

‘Weeding’ Through Gardening Websites

by Emma Murphy, Master Gardener

Gardening resources on the internet are plentiful but can quickly become overwhelming for both novice and experienced gardeners. Over the past year I have noticed certain websites that continually show up at the top of my search results; these sites are “gardening content farms”, a term I learned from fellow Master Gardener Cathy Kavassalis (@CathyKavassalis). A content farm (or content mill) is a website that provides limited pay to large numbers of writers to generate a wide range of (user-generated) content which is often specifically designed to maximize page views in order to generate advertising revenue.

Examples include gardeningknowhow.com, gardendesign.com, thespruce.com, theflowerexpert.com. Many have names that entice you into their site (like a fly to a spider’s web). The websites may contain lots of information about gardening, but it appears to be mostly collected from other sites or produced by writers with minimal gardening knowledge. As Cathy puts it “The quality is variable but the sites are created to ensure they show up early in Internet searches to generate ad revenue.”

For a while I actually didn’t notice the content farm sites because I have an adblocker program (so I didn’t get the ads). Once Cathy mentioned the sites in response to a question on our Master Gardeners of Ontario Facebook site, I consciously looked and was shocked by the number of ads that had been blocked when I clicked on the links – 6, 9, even 15 or more.peonies

So I purposefully put “types of peonies” in the subject line in a Google search, keeping the topic very general. First link up is from gardendesign.com. Some good information there, but 8 ads blocked. And of course first of all I get a pop-up wanting me to sign up for their newsletter (to sell me more stuff).GardenDesign.pngThis is where you have to be an engaged researcher. Often the author may own a business (for example, one that sells expensive peonies); this doesn’t mean the information isn’t good, but their primary motivation in writing the article is to drive you to their website, or for you to share their article with others to increase their profile. Other sites engage writing generalists to search the internet for information on a topic and repost it on the site, which could mislead you into thinking they wrote the article (usually there is an attribution to the source at the bottom of the page in small lettering).

The content provided on these sites are not a bad place to begin your searches, but the quality varies significantly, as these are not generally writers with gardening knowledge. Also if they are reworking other (maybe erroneous) information, they are simply continuing to spread misinformation.

I offer three suggestions to help you find gardening information on the web:

If you are doing a Google search focus your search with as many key terms as you can so you get what you need, often bypassing the gardening content farms. For example, typing in “ontario gladiolus bulbs overwintering” brings up good local answers from sites such as TorontoGardens (with Helen and Sara Battersby), Landscape Ontario, an Agriculture Canada publication on gladiolus, and Toronto Master Gardeners. Then the aggregate (garden farm) sites follow, as they have more general information.

Rather than Googling for information, use some of the great resources available on Facebook and Twitter. Master Gardeners of Ontario, Ontario Horticultural Association (OHA) (through GardenOntario), and many regional Master Gardener and OHA groups are on Facebook and Twitter – it really is a terrific way to learn (and make new gardening friends). Also there are many good gardening websites to be found (really another entire post) – look for information with that provided by a government agency (e.g. OMAFRA, USDA, etc.), respected horticulturalists, a botanic garden and/or arboretum, a university, a Cooperative Extension services associated with a university (USA), or a wildflower or native gardening society.

Subscribe (or follow) excellent gardening blogs – find those that match your interests and where the writers are passionate gardeners who want to share their knowledge. You are on one now 9a2684c4213171476e13732af3b26537 so sign up to get notifications of new posts (every week). Other blogs I like are The Impatient Gardener, Savvy Gardening, and  Three Dogs in a Garden. Ask friends for recommendations. You can also reach out to me on Twitter.

Filtering through all the information is challenging, but hopefully this blog gives you some tools to separate the wheat from the chaff. Happy Gardening!PMG

 

Tamarack or Larch?

By Christine Freeburn, Master Gardener

Many of you may have noticed the amazing yellow shades of the tamarack trees last October. They absolutely glowed in the landscape after the maple, oak and other deciduous trees had dropped their colourful leaves.tamarack-trees-208125_960_720

Tamarack and larches are from the Pinaceae family and the Larix genus with different species names to differentiate themselves. They are deciduous conifers, meaning they are evergreens that drop their needles in winter. Their bark seems flaky with reddish undertones. Leaves or needles are a light bluish green turning a bright yellow in autumn. They grow in whorls or tufts around the branch and give the tree a soft fluffy appearance. Cones are small.

European Larch is Larix decidua which grows here in the east. It tends to have droopy branches and grows in fields and open areas as it likes sun. Its needles tend to be a bit longer than the Tamarack needles and it’s cones are bigger.

Tamarack is Laris laricina which grows here in wet swampy areas in full sun. It is native to Canada.

Larch can live up to 850 years and grow 260′ tall while Tamarack are smaller, growing only 65′ high.larch-163340_960_720

There are several dwarf cultivars created for the home garden, however these trees do not do well in cities where they suffer from air pollution.

A strong softwood, Tamarack means ‘wood used for snowshoes’ in the Algonguin language.

Western Larch L.occidentalis grows in western Canada.

Watch for these bright pops of colour this fall.

Bulbs for All Seasons

In the next few weeks, autumn will arrive and garden centres will fill their shelves with mums, ornamental cabbages and other fall flowers. And spring flowering bulbs will be available too! Spring bulbs like tulips and daffodils are planted in our gardens in the fall and appear the next spring.

There is an upcoming opportunity to learn more about flowering bulbs when Dugald Cameron, former owner of GardenImport, speaks at ‘BULBS FOR ALL SEASONS’ presented by the Peterborough Master Gardeners. Victoria Whitney of Griffins Greenhouses will also speak on spring bulbs. This event happens on Saturday, September 28th at Westdale United Church on Sherbrooke St. It runs from 9 am to 3:30 pm and includes lunch. There will be bulbs for sale as well as a demonstration.

Get your early bird ticket this week by contacting Margaret at 705-876-1771 or mahiggins@sympatico.ca.  [ PMG Bulbs for all Seasons Registration Form .pdf]

bulbs poster final 2019

What I Found at the Landfill…

By Mary-Jane Parker, Master Gardener

The other day I took four garbage pails of green waste to the local landfill composting facility. As I was emptying my pails, I looked down and discovered a huge pile of cactus that someone had discarded. I carefully (because they are covered in spines!) put one in a pail, took it home and planted it in a hot , dry and sandy area around the pumping chamber, hoping it would root.

Opuntia are native to the Americas and hardy even in southern Canada. After flowering, they produce fruit which I have seen in grocery stores – albeit bigger varieties of the plant.

Three days later, this is what happened! The little pear shaped protrusions above the pad started blooming one by one. Awesome!

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Lawn Care

by Sharleen Pratt, Master Gardener in Training

One thing that characterizes our gardens and landscapes from those in other parts of the world is our obsession with the lawn. The desire to have a smooth, green, flawless carpet has created an industry worth billions of dollars. I find that most serious gardeners have no time for the care and maintenance that a lawn requires. Like myself, they would rather be planting a new annual, perennial, or shrub.

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Whether you are a big fan of lawns or not, it is important for us to understand how to best maintain a healthy lawn. Learning to do so in a sustainable way is critical as we move forward in our partnership with the environment.

What good is a lawn? Well, like all plants, turfgrass provides oxygen, helps filter pollutants from the air, and cools us in the summer through transpiration. It also provides a place for people to play a number of different sports, a place to walk, and creates a beautiful setting around a cemetery.

When thinking of your lawn, choose a seed that is appropriate for your region and your soil conditions. A good quality grass seed usually has a mixture of Kentucky Bluegrass, Fescue and Perennial Ryegrass. If you can get over the need for a grass only lawn, consider mixing your seed choice with some Dutch white clover. Clover provides nitrogen, stays green, and is drought tolerant.

grass-15571_1280White clover in grass

It is possible to seed in the spring, but usually the best time is in late summer (around August 15 to September 15) as bluegrass and fescue are cool season species. Also, fewer weeds germinate during this period of time. When over-seeding, be sure to water daily until the seedlings are at least 2 inches tall, then switch to deep watering once a week.

Fescues are more shade tolerant than bluegrass or ryegrass and germinate well in clay soils. Fescue is also more drought tolerant and are often vigorous growers. Ryegrass will act as a nurse grass for the slower germinating bluegrass. Its’ rapid germination will help to establish the lawn quickly and it produces little or no thatch.

Kentucky Bluegrass will give you that nice smooth texture with a dark green colour. Unfortunately, it doesn’t perform as well in heavy shade, has slower germination and prefers well drained alkaline soil. Therefore, with clay soil, it is best to have a higher percentage of fescue varieties and perennial ryegrass as part of the mixture.

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Once established, your lawn will require a good management plan. To support the rapid growth in the growing season, your lawn will require a continuous supply of nutrition. Most lawn fertilizers are made up of nitrogen (N), phosphate (P) and potassium (K). Generally, nitrogen makes the lawn green, phosphorus produces healthy roots, and potassium builds hardiness (for more info check this link out).

In an ideal world, we would hope that the seed would benefit from an active population of earthworms, fungi, bacteria and a healthy supply of microorganisms. If you prefer to use organic lawn care, fertilize with 1 to 2 cm of compost each spring. This will help to feed the lawn naturally and supply the appropriate nutrients to the clay soil. A yearly practice of topdressing with compost will also help to increase the topsoil depth, especially if you live in a newer subdivision. The topsoil should be at a depth of at least 6 to 8 inches. This is often not the case when they build new homes.

During drought situations, let your lawn go dormant as it will grow and become green again once rain returns.

Always mow with your blades set high (2 ½ inches). This will help to crowd out the weeds and protect the grass roots from drying out. Be sure to maintain your mower blades to keep them sharp so they do not tear the grass blades. Mow only as often as needed to remove 1/3 of the grass blade at one time. Using a mulching mower and leaving the grass clippings on the lawn will help to return nitrogen to the soil.

It is important with clay soil to aerate and dethatch. Clay soils are often compacted and will benefit from removing soil cores and raking out thatch in the early spring to allow water drainage, increase air movement and supply nutrients.

The Peterborough Master Gardeners recently visited the Guelph Turfgrass Institute, established in 1987. It is part of the University of Guelph and they are dedicated to conducting quality research and providing accurate and timely information and education services in turfgrass science with a special emphasis on environmental sustainability and enhancement. The website has many good articles on lawn care, pest management, and irrigation.

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Mulch–Do you love it or hate it?

By Cheryl Harrison, Master Gardener

Mulch may be used as a noun or as a verb.  I make a list to pick up some “mulch” (noun) at the garden centre so that I can come home and “mulch” (verb) my flower garden.

I mulch my gardens including my vegetable garden, my flower gardens and my container gardens. Mulch is amazing and is even used by mother nature without any human intervention. If you walk through a pine forest, you will notice that the pine needles are in a thick layer on the forest floor. Mother nature does this for a reason!

Benefits of Mulch

Mulch helps to:

  • moderate soil temperature – it keeps soil cooler in summer and warmer in winter.
  • reduce weed growth – covers the soil to reduce sunlight for weed seed germination and weakens growth of sprouted weeds.
  • retain moisture – it provides protection from drought.
  • build good soil structure and improve soil texture as it decomposes.
  • protect the soil – reduce erosion by water and wind.
  • protect plant foliage from soil splash which can transfer fungus to the leaves of plants.

There are so many types of mulch to choose from that there is sure to be something to suit every gardener.

Organic Mulch

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Pine needle mulch – waiting for plants. South Carolina garden. 
  • Adds nutrients to the soil as it decomposes, living mulches may be fragrant and attract pollinators.
  • Grass clippings, dried shredded fall leaves, leaf mould, conifer needles, clean straw or hay, wood chips or sawdust, shredded newspapers, shredded bark, coconut/nut husks, finished compost, cover crops, creeping groundcover perennials (eg. Thyme – covers the ground well and it flowers) or even closely planted gardens.

Inorganic Mulch

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Stone mulch, author’s garden
  • Permanent, does not break down easily and does not add nutrients to the soil.
  • Geotextiles (landscape fabric), plastic and stone.

 

Mulch Application

Yes, mulching your gardens is work but the benefits are definitely worth it.

Apply mulch to damp soil, 5-10 cm (2-4 inches) deep using a shovel, a garden fork or a bucket. It really depends on the type of mulch which tool will work the best for you.

Do not cover the crown (centre of plant where the stems originate) or mulch right up to the trunk of your trees. You may smother your plant if you cover it with mulch or attract insects to your tree’s trunk if you mulch too close. You will need to re-apply organic mulch every couple of years as it breaks down and becomes part of the garden soil.

Purchasing Mulch

Mulch may be purchased in bulk or in bags. Be sure to ask questions about the product. You want mulch that is free of weed seeds and disease. If you prefer dyed mulch, you will want mulch where the dye used is not poisonous to you or the other critters in your garden.

Oh, I forgot one of the most important benefits of mulch … your soil and your plants are healthy and happy, so enjoy those beautiful gardens!

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Author’s garden

Comfrey Tea

By Suzanne Seryck, Master Gardener

I have just finished making a couple of batches of comfrey tea which I will use as a liquid fertilizer on all my pots, vegetables and anything that looks like it needs a pick-me-up. Comfrey is by far my favourite plant to have in a garden, although I should just add that in my garden, my comfrey plant is relegated to an area at the very back behind the leaf composter, as you can see in the following picture:

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Comfrey is a plant that should be in every garden. In my garden I use it strictly for either mulch or as a fertilizer, which is why the location of the plant is not as important. However comfrey has many more uses; it is an amazing multi-functional plant meaning that it can take on many different roles in a garden. It attracts both bees and other beneficial insects with its pink and purple flowers. Traditionally comfrey (once called knitbone) was used for wound healing, with poultices made of mashed leaves being used to heal cuts and scrapes. The long, large tap root can be used to break up hardpan and heavy clay soils. In addition the tap root is very efficient at ‘mining’ the soil for minerals and nutrients, which is then stores in its leaves–this is known as a dynamic accumulator plant. The leaves can be cut and simply laid on the ground as a mulch wherever they are needed or even added to the composter, or they can be used in a tea form.

By cutting down the plant to about 12 inches, this will trigger the plant to regrow. I typically cut mine back 2-3 times per year. In my last garden, I used comfrey in the orchard where I would plant 3-4 plants around each fruit tree. The comfrey attracted pollinators and other insects to the orchard and I cut the comfrey down using the leaves as a mulch around the trees.

The following picture shows my comfrey plant just after I cut it back:

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Making compost tea is easy, however I should add that it does smell really bad, so you just need to be aware of this when choosing a place to let it sit for the 2 weeks or so it requires. All you need to do is cut the plant down and add the leaves and stems to a bucket of water. I put mesh over the top of the bucket to keep away the mosquitoes, and leave it in an area of the garden where it will not be disturbed for approximately 10 days to 2 weeks. After that time, strain all the decomposing material off straight to the composter and you have your undiluted liquid. I use this at about 1 part manure tea to 10 parts water, and mix straight into to a watering can.

The following photo shows the comfrey tea after I have strained out all the leaves:

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There are many videos you can find online showing different ways to make the tea. Here is one that is easy to follow:

I have been using comfrey tea as a fertilizer for roughly 10 years, if not more, and have never had any plants that have had an adverse reaction to it. It is not a miracle grow; it will not double the size of your plants, but it is free, you know exactly what is in it, you have the knowledge that you’ve made it yourself, it is all natural and organic, and for plants in pots, raised beds, or greenhouses you are feeding those plants with nutrients that would normally be present in the soil found in your garden.