It’s getting close to that time of year when our thoughts turn to gardening and starting seeds. The seed catalogues come in the mail in the new year, the Master Gardeners have their Day for Gardeners (pre-covid, this was usually held in late February), and then there’s Seedy Sunday (usually held in mid-March, and still possible for 2022).
Starting seeds in your sunniest south-facing window is your best bet if you don’t have grow lights. When grow lights are used properly, you will have more compact, healthier seedlings to put out in your garden. And grow lights can be used year round to grow veggies indoors. They can be used for houseplants as well.
There are lots of different options for choosing grow lights from plant stands with fluorescent or LED lights suspended over your seed flats, to incandescent light bulbs that fit into a standard lamp. There are pros and cons to each type of light. For example, incandescent lights are cheapest, but the most expensive to operate. There is a lot to take into consideration when choosing and selecting the grow lights that will work best for you and the plants you want to grow. I’ve done a little research and found Lamps Plus and Modern Farmer have some good information to help you select and use your lights efficiently.
I was recently at a market where a local garden group was selling some plants including many native plants. I noticed a striking goldenrod. I remarked to one of the vendors that it still seems odd to me to see goldenrod for sale when it is so common in rural Ontario. The vendor rightly chastised me because this goldenrod was not your very common goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), it was Gray Goldenrod (S. nemoralis) . The vendor went on to describe some of the positive attributes of this plant. I have to say that the bright yellow, fluffy flowers were beautiful!
This market interaction set me thinking more about the native varieties of goldenrod, or Solidago, species. There are over 100 species of this perennial native with over 25 being found in Ontario. This plant often gets bad press as being a plant whose pollen causes allergies but the likely culprit is ragweed (Ambrosia species). Ragweed and goldenrod bloom at the same time and are often found growing in the same areas. Goldenrod’s lovely yellow flowers (note that there are a couple of Ontario species with white flowers) are attractive to bees and butterflies. They serve as a good source of nectar in the fall and their heavy pollen grains attach easily to the bodies of pollinators. Ragweed flowers are green, do not produce nectar and produce large amounts of light pollen that easily becomes airborne … hence your sneezing and your itchy eyes.
Goldenrod is an easy keeper in the garden. It can grow in a variety of soils, many prefer sun but some grow well in part shade or shade and most prefer average moisture but some can grow well in very moist soil. Goldenrod spreads via seed and through rhizomes (horizontal underground stems). Some species (Tall goldenrod (S. altissima), Canada goldenrod (S. canadensis), and Giant goldenrod (S. gigantea) can quickly take over a small garden. These may be grown in a pot , in a bordered area or in that hot dry area of the garden where not many other plants will grow. This will help to keep them in check.
Goldenrod can be quite a tall plant and is very pretty in drifts in the garden, as a background plant or even as a focal point. I started a woodland garden this year and planted a zigzag goldenrod (S. flexicaulis) which grows in full shade. Goldenrod is great for adding colour to the fall garden and when grown alongside beautiful purple asters (for example, New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), the display is stunning!
Goldenrod has many positive attributes from its beautiful, bright yellow flowers and its tall upright growth habit to the many species that will grow in a variety of conditions including that hot, dry spot in your garden.
Goldenrod may be purchased at most native plant nurseries or grown from seed. For more information on the different species of goldenrod, please check here. For more information on growing golden rod, please check here.
I was very intrigued by the plant known as Verbena bonariensis. This particular Verbena is often shown growing in gardens on the British show Gardener’s World.
I managed to find seeds this spring from William Dam Seeds Ltd. The package instructed me to start seeds 8 to 10 weeks before the last frost, however, due to a huge demand for seeds the past few years, my package arrived quite late and I was unable to start the seeds until well into April. At the best of times, Verbena can be an erratic germinator and I was only successful getting one seed to germinate. However, this one plant was a huge success and I will definitely be trying again next year, although I may be lucky to find some seedlings in my garden.
This plant is one of about 250 species in the genus Verbena. Most are not in cultivation. It is native to Brazil and Argentina. Bonariensis means ‘from Buenos Aires, Argentina’. ‘Buenos’ means ‘good’ and ‘aires’ means ‘air’. It is a perennial in zones 7 to 11, therefore, is grown as an annual in the Peterborough region. In some milder climates such as California, it can be considered a weed. Verbena bonariensis, also known as Tall Verbena or Brazilian Verbena has stiff upright branching stems. It reaches a height of 3 to 6 feet and spreads 1 to 3 feet and is unlikely to fall over. The stiff square and rough stems hold clusters of lilac-purple flowers from early summer right through to late fall. The deep green, lance-shaped serrated leaves form a mounded rosette at the base of the plant. The flowers are borne in rounded clusters 2 to 3 inches across. The cut flowers last a long time in flower arrangements. England’s Royal Horticultural Society Floral Committee awarded V. bonariensis an Award of Garden Merit (the Society’s symbol of excellence given to plants of outstanding garden value) “because of its attractive flowers and uncluttered habit.” They can make an unforgettable display and although they are tall plants, they have an open and airy appearance which lends them to being tucked in between other plants or even creating a dramatic appearance at the front of a border. They sway in the breeze and are very attractive to butterflies, bees and other insects. They prefer full sun to part shade in well-drained soil.
Our very hot summer did not affect its performance and knowing that they are drought tolerant once established is another plus for this plant. There are little known pests or diseases, although powdery mildew can sometimes be a problem. White spots on the leaves do not seem to have much impact on blooming.
If you leave the flowers to develop seed heads for the birds, the plant may self-seed the following year. As this was my first season with this plant, I will have to wait until the spring to see if my conditions are good for self-seeding. I understand that they may not appear until late spring.
It is also possible to cultivate through cuttings and you can find out how to do this in this short video by the very well-known British gardener Monty Don.
A riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Winston Churchill’s famous quotation is the way that I as a novice dahlia grower feel about this subject. So many variations exist. Can they all be correct?? The answer to this mystery seems to be fine tuning a storage method to suit your own situation, which means some trial and error. So, expect some losses at first.
When to dig? Conventional advice says to wait for the frost but this year’s fine weather made other alternatives a consideration. Dahlias originate from the mountains of Mexico where the fall is semi-arid. It is the lack of water that causes the plant to go dormant. Here that happens either with a killing frost or by cutting the plant down. Both cause the onset of dormancy and once begun, the tubers underground start to set “eyes”. Leave the tubers in ground for 1-2 weeks before digging (this also helps the thin skinned tubers to toughen up, which helps them store better).
Divide now or in the spring? This is entirely personal preference. Dahlia are easier to split in the fall as the stalk hardens over winter. However, the eyes are easier to see in the spring. If you choose to split in the fall, tubers will need washing and drying before splitting. For plants being overwintered as a clump, knock off excess soil and let dry before storing. Some sources conjecture that the fine covering of soil helps to protect the tubers from shriveling over the winter.
Successful dahlia storage is a balance between the right temperature range and the relative humidity. Ideally, dahlias should be stored around 45 to 50 F and at a RH of 75-85%. The method you use should try to ameliorate the conditions you are storing in. For example, the dryness of the air in winter in Ontario means that shriveling of tubers is more of a problem than rot. Use of a packing material such as vermiculite or wood shavings can provide a more stable environment, absorbing excess moisture when necessary and giving back when needed.
Specifics of various techniques are referenced for your information. I have decided to try 3 methods. I am going to split some this fall and store using the saran wrap method as well as in vermiculite in plastic tubs. I will also leave some in clumps with a slight covering of earth, pack in vermiculite in a large plastic tote. I lean towards the plastic tubs as my basement in quite dry in the winter so am concerned with moisture retention. Don’t forget to check your tubers over the winter and remove any ones with rot or spritz with water if they appear to be shriveling.
Agastache foeniculum, also known as Anise hyssop, is an herb belonging to the mint family. It was originally purchased by me as a garden thriller. It has since become a workhorse for my garden. The mother plant of the ones I now have was planted in my garden in Havelock – the “Blue Fortune” cultivar.
The seeds of the ones I have now arrived in my new garden in Norwood in the compost I brought from my old place. This delightful aromatic native plant is tolerant of a wide range of soils, drought tolerant once established, deer resistant and will do well in sun to part shade.
Although it self seeds very readily, it is easily pulled when small. The plant will grow 2-3” tall with a branching habit. The flowers are produced on the tips of the branches starting in early July. Some are still flowering in mid September. As far as it’s attraction to pollinators is concerned; it is a bee magnet. It also doesn’t seem to attract insect pests or diseases.
Since I had so many seedlings coming up all over my garden, I decided to let them develop and act as filler plants until I had something else coming along or decided to use them elsewhere. I have since used them as a border for some of my flower beds next to my neighbour’s property.
Others I use as specimen plant for some of my beds and some others next to my vegetables to attract pollinators. For me, this is one of the most enjoyable and versatile plants in my garden.
I was recently reading about a condition called “plant blindness.” The phrase was coined back in 1998 by botanists Elizabeth Schussler and James Wandersee.[i] It is defined as the “inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment.” Plants are not as obvious as animals because they often “lack visual attention cues.” They can seem ubiquitous–have the same colour, form, and lack a “face.” They don’t move and they usually aren’t threatening. For example, if you look at a photo of a pond containing birds, surrounded by plants, which of these would you most likely know by name or recall later? This bias results in lower levels of plant knowledge, awareness of plant names, of plant functions, and their roles resulting in less interest in plant protection, conservation, and reduced funding. Plants are vital to our survival and we need to see their importance, appreciate them, and put them on the same level as animals.[ii] It is possible to overcome ”plant blindness.” We need to introduce and share plant knowledge with children at an early age in the same way we encourage learning about animals.
Recently I was out walking and was trying out the Seek identification app by iNaturalist on my phone. I was attempting to identify a specific type of Elm (Ulmus) and a couple that I know walked by and we started a conversation about the app. They mentioned that their son and grandchildren use it on their nature walks. It can be used to identify other lifeforms other than plants and while the app isn’t 100%, it is fairly reliable. If it is uncertain, it will restrict its identification to a family or a genus and won’t offer a guess. An Oxford University study[iii] found that it was in the top five of plant identification apps (the others included Plant.ID, Google Lens, Flora Incognita, PlantNet). It has some fun nature challenges built into it as well as the ability to earn badges for the number of species observed. Photos of plants may also be uploaded to the iNaturalist citizen science web site where they can be confirmed through crowd-sourcing. In terms of correcting “plant blindness,” this app has great potential.
It is only the beginning of October but the holiday season is just around the corner. It is not too early to be thinking of presents. Why not give the gift of a book about gardening, botany, or nature to a child in your life? The following are a selection of some of the best books for a range of age levels. Most of the books listed have been well-received by reviewers in publications such as Booklist, Horn Book, Kirkus Reviews, and School Library Journal. Titles marked with an asterisk have received at least one starred review. If purchasing is not an option, you can check to see if your local library carries them (or recommend that they do).
*A Seed is Sleepy by Dianna Hutts Aston; illus. Sylvia Long (Chronicle Books, 2007). Level: Grade 1 to 4.
*Begin with a Bee by Liza Ketchum et al.; illus. Claudia McGehee (University of Minnesota Press, May 2021). Level: Preschool to Grade 4.
[iii] Jones, Hamlyn G. What plant is that? Tests of automated image recognition apps for plant identification on plants from the British flora. AoB PLANTS, Volume 12, Issue 6, December 2020. Online: https://doi.org/10.1093/aobpla/plaa052 Accessed: October 2, 2021.
I recently read the book “The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating” by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. The author recounts her observations of a common woodland snail while she was bedridden. Although the very title of this book could strike fear and loathing in a gardener’s heart as we imagine our plants being shredded, it was an enjoyable, informative read and made me curious about the slimy creatures that lurk in my garden.
What I have learned about snails and slugs (gastropods) can hardly be described as scratching the surface but here are a few details.
In their natural settings gastropods help disperse seeds and spores, break down decaying plant matter, consume empty snail shells, sap, animal scats and carcasses and provide food for other predators like birds, small mammals, salamanders, turtles and invertebrates like firefly larvae that feed exclusively on snails.
Gastropods are equipped with thousands of sharp teeth that are routinely replaced.
Non-native species of gastropods are higher risk for damaging agriculture and preying on native species of gastropods and are most likely the ones we encounter in our own gardens.
The fact that non-native gastropods are likely the predominant ones in my garden might make me more interested in spending evenings in the garden with a flashlight picking slugs off my plants but some studies have shown that doing so doesn’t make a dent in their populations. So, for the time being I will continue to do what I have in the past which is essentially nothing. In a ‘Laidback Gardener’ blog, Larry Hodgson discusses Snails (okay) and Slugs (bad!) and one in which he discusses the effectiveness of various slug control methods. Both blogs are informative reads.
There is really only one of his ‘effective’ treatments that I engage with in my garden, and that is to encourage slug predators by providing an environment for wildlife. The rest can seem like too much work! Planting slug resistant plants is also something to consider and Larry Hodgson provides a list for that too.
In my garden I find practices such as seeding lettuce in containers and planting out hardened off nasturtium seedlings slow down slug predation but I generally accept some cosmetic damage to plants and at the same time enjoy the sight of the resident chipmunk munching on a slug.
Most would agree that fresh herbs taste better than dried. There is no need to forego the companionship of fresh herbs once winter sets in. You can make good use of the herbs you are growing in your garden by bringing them into your homes, potting them up and putting them in a sunny window. If this isn’t possible, you can consider drying which concentrates and preserves the flavouring oils contained in the leaves. Read below for some of the many options you might consider as our summer months draw to an end.
MOVING HERBS INDOORS
Many herbs can be brought indoors and with proper care, survive the winter months. They need ample light, even moisture and moderate temperatures. Remember to pot up the herbs in your garden early. Do not wait until frost is imminent, because herbs are best if gradually acclimatized to the indoor environment, especially to the lower light conditions. Use a quality potting mixture and a good sized pot. Prune back the foliage and roots if necessary. You will get some wilting of leaves and some may die, but you should see some new growth soon. Remove any dying leaves as they turn yellow. It’s also a good practice to dip your plants in an insecticidal soap solution before moving them indoors to guard against aphids and spider mites. If you have the time, gradually move your plants into shadier locations and eventually indoors to your sunniest window.
I have had good success with bringing in my rosemary plant and it remains quite happy in my kitchen window. I do occasionally mist the leaves and I am lucky to have a south facing window.
I take cuttings from my basil and put the cut stem in water. Be sure to do this before the cold as basil can die overnight. Once there are some tiny roots, transfer it to a pot with some good quality soil. It will require five or six hours of direct light.
The simplest way to preserve herbs is by air drying, which usually takes two to three weeks. Tie large leafy-stemmed herbs with rubber bands into loose bundles and hang them in a room or closet with good cross air circulation. It is best to gather the leaves in the early morning after the dew has evaporated. They should feel crisp when fully dry.
You can also spread the herbs over a screen or netting in a dark ventilated area, but you must be sure they are completely dry before storing to avoid any mould.
My neighbour had a very old dehydrator that hadn’t been used in years. As has happened in this pandemic, she pulled it out of her cupboard and began to use it. I had an abundance of basil which I gave to her. She put it in her dehydrator and within a few hours I had wonderful dried basil that is much greener and fresher than anything I would get at the store.
You can also set your oven to 175 degrees and lay the herbs on cookie sheets in a single layer. Depending on the herb, this can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours. Be sure to check every 30 minutes since herbs all dry at different rates. Allow to cool completely before crumbling.
Microwave ovens preserve the colour and flavour of herbs, but can only handle small amounts at a time. Place the herbs on a paper towel in a single layer and microwave using 30 second intervals. You may have to experiment as temperatures of microwaves tend to be different. Let them cool completely before storing. I’m not a huge fan of this method as I don’t find the microwave heats evenly and it is just too fiddly for me.
STORING DRIED HERBS
They can be stored in airtight containers away from heat, light and moisture. It is best to use glass or metal tins with tight fitting lids. Plastic breathes and will allow the herbs to absorb moisture.
Herbs can also be stored in the freezer. I have had great success with parsley and coriander. I store the leaves in an airtight ziploc bag and find it easy to take out what I need for soups, etc.
Another method would be to chop fresh-cut herbs and evenly spread on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and place in the freezer for several hours. Pack the frozen herbs in small containers, label and date the containers and keep frozen for 6 to 8 months.
Or, you could freeze finally chopped herbs in stock or water for use in stews or soups. This can be done in ice-cube trays. Remove the frozen cubes and store in a ziploc bag.
Richters Herbs website has lots of information about the preservation and storing of herbs.
With the autumn equinox right around the corner, this is the perfect time of year to be collecting seeds. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I find seed collecting both rewarding and therapeutic. There is something about spending an intimate amount of time with different plant species, getting to know them and discover how the plant truly grew. It’s amazing that something as tall and beautiful as a Foxglove grows from the tiniest of seeds. Whether you are collecting seeds from fruits and vegetables, wildflowers, ornamental flowers, grasses or trees, you will notice that each seed has various characteristics that make it unique.
I always carry a pen for labeling, a big stack of envelopes, usually a pair of secateurs or snips, and sometimes paper lunch bags for larger seeds. I go for a meditative walk through the woods or around my yard, carefully collecting my stash, labeling the envelopes or bags, and bringing them home for extra drying time. For some seeds I use a sieve to take off any chaff that is still clinging on, and then I weigh everything out on my scale and divide certain seeds up into packages I make out of old scraps of paper (vintage National Geographic magazines are my favourite to use). Before the pandemic started, there was an annual Seedy Sunday event held every March in Peterborough; keep your eyes and ears peeled for future dates because this is a great place to meet other seed collectors and swap findings.
I encourage you to go for a walk around your property or nearby country road and collect your own seeds because not only is it a fun and free way to help you grow different plants on your own, but you can also share or sell any leftover seeds you have. Some of my favourite native varieties to collect are:
Aquilegia canadensis, wild columbine
Asclepsias tuberosa, butterfly weed
Aster novae-angliae, New England aster
Coreopsis lanceolata, lanceleaf coreopsis
Dalea purpurea, purple prairie clover
Monarda fistulosa, wild bergamot
Rudbeckia hirta, black-eyed Susan
Symphyotrichum oblongifolium, aromatic aster
Another thing that I like to do is create seed bombs that I can use for guerilla gardening projects. Seed bombs are a great activity to do with kids and it encourages them to get messy and add to the beauty of this world. I personally like to “bomb” public areas around commercial properties and newly built subdivisions with wildflower seeds, anything to bring some life back into the beige-grey landscape.
Materials you will need:
Wildflower seeds or seeds collected from the garden
Powdered clay (found in craft shops); some people also use cat litter
A bowl to mix everything in
A tray to dry the seed bombs on
How to build your bombs:
In a bowl, mix together 1 cup of seeds with 5 cups of compost and 2-3 cups of clay powder.
Slowly mix in water with your hands until everything sticks together. It should have the same texture and consistency as muffin batter (kids love this because it’s like making slime)
Roll the mixture into firm, even balls and then leave the balls to dry in a sunny or warm spot
Once they are dry, plant your seed bombs by throwing them at bare parts of the garden or land and wait to see what pops up! (I usually like to time my guerrilla plantings with the rain).
If you are interested in learning more about seed saving locally, Jill Bishop from Nourish has some great reference material and sometimes offers workshops, especially to those who are members of local community gardens. https://nourishproject.ca/basics-seed-saving
If your houseplants are on “vacation” on the back deck this summer, then at around this time you should think about getting them ready to move back inside for the winter.
Bring your houseplants indoors before night time temperatures dip below 7 or 8 degrees (C). Most tropicals will suffer damage at temperatures below 5 degrees, a few even below 10 degrees.
Sudden changes in temperature, light, and humidity can be traumatic to plants, resulting in yellowed leaves, dieback, wilting, and even death. To prevent shock when you bring houseplants back indoors, expose plants gradually to reduced lighting.
Before moving day, inspect plants for insects and diseases, and treat as appropriate before bringing plants back inside. Spray them a couple of times over a 2 week period with a mild soap and water mix so that you don’t bring bugs from outdoors in with your plants. Alternatively, soaking the pot in a tub of lukewarm soapy water for about 15 minutes will force insects out of the soil. Allow the plant and pot to dry completely afterwards. If snails, earthworms, or other insects burrowed in the soil, you might want to repot the plants, placing a piece of wire screening over the drainage hole to keep them out next year.
Personal anecdote: A couple of years ago, I brought a large cactus planter inside without inspections or the soaking method. The next day, we found a curious “deposit” left behind by some unknown critter on our kitchen floor and we kinda freaked out. We set live traps in the house and were on high alert for a chipmunk or squirrel or even something huge with big teeth that could drag us out of bed by the big toe. It was a little bit traumatic. A day or so later, my son found a large toad in the living room and we connected the dots. Turns out that toads leave very large deposits for their body size (Google it!) and closer inspection of the cactus planter showed an open hibernation hole. Whew!
Moral of the story? Check your plant pots for toads too!