The Soil in Your Garden

by Christine Freeburn – Master Gardener

For the plants in your garden to be the best they can be, you need to start with the best soil you can make. Enhancing your soil with compost and manure is the best way to do this.

Soil provides physical anchorage for plants

You need your soil to have enough texture to hold your plants without being so heavy that it strangles them.

You should know what your SOIL TEXTURE is.  To do this, you can try this simple test:

  • fill a quart jar one third full with a sample of your soil
  • dig down into the soil to get a sample
  • fill the jar with water, put the lid on tightly and shake well.

As the soil settles, you will be able to see different layers.  The bottom level is the sand portion.  Next will be silt. Silt has larger particles than sand, but smaller than clay.  Last will be clay.

The amount of each that you have in your soil will determine what type of soil you have….clay, sandy, silty or any combination of these. The best soil is sandy loam, which is about 60% sand and 40% clay.

This will also tell you how your soil deals with water….does it drain well or hold and stay wet longer.

You can amend your soil to improve the texture, but it is a constant challenge. Sometimes it is better to accept what type of soil you have and grow plants that prefer a sandy soil or a clay soil.

Soil supplies water and nutrients to plants

When you water, water the soil and roots of your plants, not the leaf portions. Water is absorbed through the roots and channels up into the leaves.

pH

Another thing you should know about your soil is it’s pH…is it acidic or alkaline. pH has a scale of 1 to 10, with acidic soil have a low number. Most plants like 6.0 to 7.5. This is where they can best absorb the nutrients in your soil. You might have heard that plants like rhodendrons prefer acidic soil, which would have a lower pH.

Knowing the nutrients in your soil is important also. You can send away to Guelph University to get your soil tested, however that can be expensive. You can use an inexpensive soil testing kit also. It will also test for pH.

There are 3 big nutrients and these are Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium. You will be familiar with them as the three numbers on fertilizers. Many fertilizers are synthetic, however you can get organic types.

Nitrogen is for leaves and greening of your plants.NPK-01.png

  • fish emulsion
  • blood meal

Phosphorus is for bloom

  • bone meal

Potassium is for roots and overall health of plant

  • wood ash
  • composted seaweed

Other natural fertilizers

  • animal manures – make sure they are well composted or they will burn your plants or be full of weeds
  • manure tea – dilute manure in water, let sit for a week, then water plants
  • comfrey tea – another good nutritional source
  • epson salts – put a tsp in hole when planting

Know your soil, it’s texture, pH and nutritional content

Grow the plants that will thrive in those conditions or be prepared to make amendments

Soil is a living thing which needs to be enriched on a regular basis

Compost and Topdress

Building Natural Ponds by Robert Pavlis

Book Review by Cheryl Harrison

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What does the dedicated gardener do on cold Canadian winter days? Read gardening books and day dream, of course!
Santa brought me “Building Natural Ponds”(ISBN 978-0-86571-845-6) by Robert Pavlis. Mr. Pavlis is an experienced Master Gardener. He owns and developed an extensive botanical garden. He is a speaker, teacher, writer and blogger.
We have two ponds on our large rural property. Both are natural ponds. The previous books that I have read about creating and maintaining gardening ponds usually talk about pumps, filters and chemicals. They talk about the need to clean your pond regularly, what to plant and how to care for your fish. All of this requires lots of effort….seems like not much time to enjoy your pond when coupled with all of the other usual garden chores.
“Building Natural Ponds”, although a small book, takes the reader from the pond ecosystem and environmental benefits, through planning, pond design and building to fish, plants and maintenance. There is even a short chapter on “pools, bogs and rain gardens”. I was able to easily follow the pond building process and with the diagrams and photos included in the book, I could picture each step. I could also imagine how the information can be applied to our current ponds. For example, Mr. Pavlis talks about algae. He eloquently explains the science around the balance needed to ensure that algae growth is controlled. The book is also indexed and includes a list of helpful references.
My only very small criticism would be that not all the pictures are in colour. The colour pictures that are included, are lovely and do contribute to successful day dreaming!
I would recommend “Building Natural Ponds” by Robert Pavlis to anyone considering a future pond build, to anyone who would like to learn more about their current pond or just to anyone who likes to learn and dream gardening!

Growing Strawberries in Containers

by Pat Freistatter

Why grow strawberries in containers? 

  • It does not require a lot of space.
  • Containers can be close to your kitchen
  • Bacterial and fungal diseases and damage from slugs are reduced.
  • Containers can be moved around to take advantage of warmth and light from the sun.

Note: Strawberries on plants still need to be protected from Insects and birds

What type of strawberry plant grows best in containers?

  • Any type of strawberry plant can be used.
  • June bearing strawberry plants provide one large crop.
  • Day neutral strawberry plants produce fruit throughout summer, except during hot weather.
  • Ever-bearing strawberry plants produce 2-3 harvests each summer from early spring to fall.

What type of container can be used?

  • Many types of containers can be used: eg. hanging basket, pot, wooden box (must have several drainage holes in the bottom)
  • Strawberry plants have a small and shallow root ball so they can be grown in small containers; as small as 25 cm in diameter and 20 cm deep (Note: small containers must be watered more often)
  • Light coloured pots keep the plant roots cooler in the heat of the summer.

What type of soil should be used?

  • Use loose, loamy potting soil that will hold water, but allow excess water to drain away.

How do you plant the strawberry plant?

  • Fill the container with potting soil to within 2.5 cm of the rim
  • Put plant in pot and cover the roots, up to the crown (where the leaves emerge), with the soil and water well. Add more potting mix if needed after the soil settles.
  • Strawberry plants can spread out about 60 cm – put only 1– 2 plants in a small container.

When should the plant be watered?

  • Water strawberries whenever the soil feels dry to about 2.5 cm below the surface.
  • Avoid both soggy and dried out soil.
  • Daily watering may be needed in periods of hot, dry weather.
  • Keep moisture off the leaves to prevent fungal diseases that will damage the fruit.

How should the plant be fertilized and when?

  • Strawberries should be fertilized every 3-4 weeks, as soon as the first flowers appear, with a fertilizer high in phosphorus.

How much sun should the plant receive?

  • At least 6-8 hours of sun – rotate container every 3-4 days if possible

Fun things to do with strawberries in containers: Create a Strawberry Waterfall

  • Stack a few lightweight pots filled with potting mix, starting from largest to smallest.
  • Plant strawberries around the edge.
  • Take care of your strawberry fountain following the previous directions for containers.

Planting a Flower Patio Container – Things to Consider

by Pat Freistatter

Location of Container

  • Sunlight – how much sunlight will the container will receive – afternoon sun is hottest – choose plants for those light conditions

Viewing Container

  • larger leaves with coarse textures and tall spiky grass can be viewed from a distance and make a visual statement
  • fine textured plants invite you to look more closely at the detail
  • a taller pot may be needed if you want the flowers to be viewed from afar

Container Size and Material

  • Container needs to be big enough to hold enough soil for the growing season
  • Fiberglass or plastic pots do not dry out as fast as clay and other porous containers.
  • Three to seven 1 cm holes need to be drilled into the bottom of container for adequate drainage.

Soil Mixture Contents

  • Materials such coconut husk fiber and sphagnum peat moss help retain water
  • Black earth (humus), composted manure, perlite, lime, and fertilizer support plants throughout growing season.

Colours and size of plants

  • White flowers catch your eyes and help other darker colours jump out
  • A variety of leaf shapes and sizes increase drama and interest in your pot

Plant soil and moisture requirements

  • All plants in container need to have same moisture requirements – don’t mix plants that like dry conditions with those that prefer wet feet

Structure

  • Thriller – tall centre
  • Filler – plants around thriller
  • Spiller – plants that spill over the edge of the container

Note: if the back of your container will be up against a wall, then the taller plants should be at the back 

Container Maintenance

  • Check planter daily to ensure it doesn’t dry out
  • Fertilize container every couple of weeks with water-soluble fertilizer
  • Remove dead flowers to encourage re-blooming.
  • Empty and wash out containers at end of season

After Bloom Care Of Spring Bulbs

by Deb Gordon

Nothing signals the rebirth of a garden more to a gardener than the first splash of colour from spring bulbs. The fresh green colour of their leaves and their colourful palette of blooms are a welcomed sign of the departure of winter and the awakening of life in the garden with all the hope and expectations that they may bring. Be it tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, grape hyacinths or alliums these early bloomers all have one thing in common. They are all true bulbs and being so means their continued lives depend on letting them become dormant through the cold winter, allowing them to bloom in the spring and die back naturally in order to complete their life cycle. This ensures the bulb’s good health so it has the ability to endure freezing temperatures throughout the winter, produce optimum blooms for the gardener to enjoy the following spring and continue to do so for years to come.

The only drawback for growing these bulbs is waiting for the leaves to die back. Unfortunately it takes weeks for their leaves to wither and die. Especially with larger leaved bulbs like tulips and daffodils, the appearance of their dying foliage, long after the blooms drop or fade, can detract from the beauty of an early summer garden. Premature removal of the foliage is tempting in order to keep the garden neat and tidy however there are consequences to doing so. Take tulips for example. They grow and bloom using the food that they have stored in their bulbs from the previous year. Once this food is spent, the bloom drops and the foliage starts to die. During this post-bloom phase, the leaves, through photosynthesis, produce the food that is stored in the bulb to enable it to survive the winter and grow and bloom in the spring. Photosynthesis is a process where the energy in sunlight is harnessed and used to convert carbon, oxygen and water into sugars. Because leaves of all plants are the primary location for photosynthesis to occur, cutting off the leaves prematurely deprives the plant of the ability to restore the energy in the bulb for its future healthy growth and its production of those beautiful blooms.
So what are some of the options for a gardener to choose in order to keep a  more pristine-looking garden?
When blooms start to fade and petals drop, tidying up the garden at this time is easily accomplished by cutting off the stems of the flower. This will still allow the leaves to continue to absorb the sun’s rays. The time is right to remove the leaves once they have withered, turned brown and can be tugged gently away from the bulb. Wait another week or two if they are not separating from the bulb easily.
The following suggestions may help to avoid the distraction of the dying foliage.
  • Dig up the bulbs and replant new ones in the fall. This can be costly in time and money. This is done routinely in publicly sponsored gardens.
  • Transplant the tulips post-bloom to another bed to live out the foliages’ dying days then replant the bulbs in the fall. This requires an extra bed just for this purpose.
  • Choose a variety that have narrower leaves which might be less distracting.
  • Conceal the withering leaves.
Strategic planting of the right combination of perennials around your bulbs may be the answer to successfully camouflaging the unsightly foliage while still allowing them to complete the restoration of energy in the bulb undisturbed for next year’s growth. Annuals and summer blooming bulbs are also other options. When choosing perennials to use, consider the rate at which the plant matures. You want the bulb to be centre stage while it’s in full bloom, the perennial just starting to appear above ground and then mature as the tulip leaves start to yellow and wither.
Although the rate of maturity is important, also consider foliage type, colour, and bloom times when choosing these perennial plants.
Hostas, tall drooping grasses, and taller ground covers are examples of perennials that are idea lfor concealing a tulip’s dying foliage. Remember that placement is key. If you are planting bulbs in the fall around hostas, make sure you plant the bulb just inside the dripline of the hosta just under the leaves. Bulbs go in front of the drooping grasses.
There are combinations of perennials listed at Cornell University’s website.
Researchers at Cornell University actually tested and listed plant combinations to see which were successful at looking good and growing well together. They have great photos of these plants and bulbs at different stages of their growth.
Just remember to check the hardiness zone and growing conditions of some of the suggested plants (if choosing) to ensure they will grow in your zone and growing conditions. The research took place in Ithaca, New York with a USA hardiness zone of 5.
If you’ve been discouraged from growing or adding more spring blooming bulbs to your garden due to the lingering foliage that never seems to go away, these suggestions will hopefully encourage you to do so. The early visual impact is rewarding and will trigger feelings of hope and excitement of the wonderful things to come.

PlantWatch

by Cauleen Viscoff

(previously published in the Peterborough Examiner)

Now that the weather is softening, and we are convinced that spring really is around the corner, there are reasons to herald its arrival other than with Easter eggs, birdsongs and flowers to pick.

There is a little-known group of folks around the world who are quietly making a difference. They are monitoring birds, insects, frogs and plants. Recording the blossom times of some plants are good indicators of climate change. We all know that our climate is making some subtle as well as some not-so-subtle changes – some better and some not so much. So what does watching plants have to do with climate change?

Plant-watching has a long tradition and a rich history throughout the world. In 1750, the Swedish scientist and artist Linnaeus, turned plant-watching into a systematic science. He made calendars of flowering times for 18 places in Sweden, noting the exact climatic conditions at the time of blooming.

This became the foundation of modern plant phenology (the science dealing with the influence of climate on the recurrence of such annual phenomena of animal and plant life as budding and bird migrations- Dictionary.com). Phenology then spread to many European countries and revealed, over the centuries, that some spring wildflowers are super-sensitive weather instruments.

More than 100 years ago in Canada, Nova Scotia’s superintendent of education, Dr. Alexander H. MacKay, had students collect plant, animal, agricultural and weather phenology from 1897 to 1923. And then, in 1987, the Alberta Wildflower Survey started up and blossomed (pun intended) into a program that initiated the Alberta PlantWatch. This program then spread back to Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and now today, PlantWatch is part of our national Nature Watch series of volunteer monitoring programs designed to help identify ecological changes that may be affecting our environment.

There are PlantWatch programs in each province and territory.

PlantWatch enables “citizen scientists” (volunteers gathering research for scientists) to get involved by recording the flowering times for certain selected plant species and reporting these dates to researchers on the PlantWatch website. When the data is submitted electronically, it is instantly added to web maps showing bloom dates all across Canada … So those observations make a difference right away!

The collection of that much data across the vast expanse of our country would be impossible for the small existing group of scientists presently working in this field.

As Canadians, we are fortunate to live in a country with such a wide variety of plant species. By participating in PlantWatch, we can learn about our country’s great botanical diversity and at the same time, help scientists track the effects of global warming and climate change in Canada.

The plants chosen for this program bloom every spring, largely in response to rising temperatures. However, some species are flowering almost a month earlier than they were a century ago!. Some of these plants you are familiar with and grow in your own yards and gardens. Poplar, Common Purple Lilac, Dandelion (bet you have lots of those..), Red Maple and Trillium are just a few.

Scientists believe that climate change is affecting bloom times – a trend that is continuing. They predict that the greatest increases in temperature will be in Western and Northern Canada, while some parts of Eastern Canada may actually be cooling (although last summer was hotter than ever).

By reporting on the PlantWatch species found in our local communities, we can help researchers discover how common plants are responding to climate change, and track where those changes are taking place in Canada and at what rate.

And now, for the first time in Canada, the PlantWatch program has partnered with the Master Gardeners of Ontario. We are excited about our potential contributions to science because we believe that observing local plants can be fun, but more importantly, the data we collect can serve a greater purpose by assisting scientists, land managers and those responsible for our natural resources to help in the environmental decisions they will need to make both now and in the future.

We urge you to join us in making a difference. You don’t have to be a professional, or even a gardener.

Take a look at the website; the plants are described in detail with glorious photos. Gather up your your children, grandchildren, friends and neighbours – sign up, get outside and watch spring happen – make your observations and”¦.make a difference.

Peterborough gardener Cauleen Viscoff, PlantWatch co-ordinator, Master Gardeners of Ontario Inc., can be reached at plantwatchontario@gmail.com. For more information, visit www.naturewatch.ca

Making a New Flower Bed – the Easier Way

 

by Dianne Westlake, Master Gardener


Perhaps the easiest way to make a new flowerbed involves no digging or turf removal. In addition to using less physical effort, this method provides a healthy environment for growing beautiful plants. The soil is fertile with the added bonus of improved drainage.

Lay out the perimeter of the new bed using a garden hose. Water the area well or wait until Mother Nature provides the necessary moisture. The next step provides a biodegradable barrier for weeds and grass using a layer of newspaper (6 to 10 sheets thick.) Do not use the shiny coloured advertising flyers for this purpose. (This is a good way to use some of those newspapers that you are setting out in the recycling bin each week.) To keep the paper from blowing around while you work, sprayed with water or anchored with soil. Uncoated corrugated cardboard can be used instead. This material works as well and does not blow around as easily.

Next add a layer of topsoil or triple mix to a depth of four to six inches followed by a layer of compost (three to four inches). The compost layer suppresses the weed seeds that can be present in the soil layer. While compost does a good job, other organic mulches should work as well. What is needed is a weed-free source of organic material. Cost and availability are important concerns. Compost in the quantity required for this type of project, is available through the City of Peterborough, Waste Management Department. Delivery can be arranged within the city or the county. Smaller quantities are available at the Ecology Park.

Water well and allow the layers to settle for a few weeks if possible. However, if need be, the beds can be planted immediately. Dig a hole large enough to accommodate the root ball, back fill, firm the soil, water and replace the compost layer. Monitor the amount of settling regularly to ensure that the root ball does not become exposed. Add a top dressing of compost if necessary. Water the new plantings regularly until the planting is established. The layer of newspaper or cardboard and the grass or weeds will rot within a few months, adding to the friability and fertility of the soil.

If you have the luxury of time, leaves (or manure) can be layered with soil on the newspaper or cardboard in the fall and allowed to decompose over the winter. Keep in mind that excess amounts of decomposing fresh organic material may deplete the nitrogen in the garden. In the spring, plant the bed and spread mulch over the surface.

Following this method will result is a raised bed that will warm earlier in spring and provide excellent drainage. An annual top dressing with compost feeds the soil and prevents germination of seeds of both self-seeding flowers and weeds. Earthworms will take the organic plant material down in the bed where the roots can make use of the nutrients.

Previously published in the Peterborough Examiner.

Managing Garden Soils — The Dirt on Dirt


By Gary Westlake, Master Gardener


Most of us don’t think much about our garden soil, perhaps because it’s beneath us. The truth is that it is the most important aspect of gardening to manage. The soil allows water, air, and nutrients to get to the roots, and provides space for your plants to grow. Without good soil your garden just won’t amount to much.

Anyone can have decent garden soil with a little work and even the beautiful loam soil that most gardeners wish for can deteriorate if neglected. Gardeners with challenging soil types may have to work a bit more but they too can have productive soils.

Sandy soils feel gritty when you rub them in your hands. They are difficult because they do not hold moisture or nutrients well. If your soil feels smooth, it probably has a lot of silt and if your soil feels sticky when wet, it probably has a high percentage of clay. Clay does not allow moisture to pass easily and has very small air spaces. When gardeners try to amend clay soils by adding sand, it often results in disaster. It would take tons of sand to make a difference even in a small lot and if only a small amount of sand is added to clay, it can form concrete making the situation worse.

Fortunately, all soils can be improved by the addition of organic matter but you need to understand what organic matter does for the soil in order to do it well. Good garden soil is not just made up of small particles of sand, silt and clay. It is alive with bacteria, fungi, and a host of other creatures. These inhabitants are busy breaking down dead plant material and this process causes the soil particles to clump together in small aggregates. Sandy soil with this granular structure, full of organic matter, will hold moisture better and a clay soil with this living structure will drain better. With the addition of organic matter, all soils will resist compaction and erosion better, they are easier to work and warm up sooner in the spring. So the first thing to remember is that the soil improvement is caused by the biological process rather than the organic matter itself.

Some of the largest of the inhabitants of the soil are earthworms. Earthworms can eat their own weight in dirt each day, and collectively they can move around and improve 20 tons in every acre each year. They do, however, have a dark side because they are not native to North America. In our forests, they break down the dead plants too fast, making it hard for our native plants to survive, so be careful not to dump garden soil in the forest.

One of the most common tiny creatures in soils are mites. A square foot of soil can contain 100 different species of mites, all specialized in feeding on a different aspect of the breakdown process. Fungi are even more common. We normally think of fungi as mushrooms but that is only the fruiting body. Most of the fungus is made up of long thin filaments in the soil that feed on living and dead plants. In fact, some called micorrhyza are essential because they extend the root system of plants and provide them with nutrients directly through this close partnership. Also in huge numbers are bacteria. The characteristic smell that you get when you dig into the ground in the spring is caused by a group of bacteria called Actinomycetes.

There are two kinds of gardeners – ones that water too much and ones that water too little. I confess to being the kind that waters too little. The downside to this is that our plants grow slowly and the roots tend to stay where the water is. Nutrients have trouble getting to the roots because there is no water to carry them. The gardeners that water too much tend to set their plants up for drought. Also too much watering can fill the air spaces in the soil and suffocate your plants.

Garden soil contains huge numbers of weed seeds. Most weeds are successful because they produce many seeds and these seeds are very long-lived in your garden. For example, the common Lamb’s Quarters produce 70,000 seeds for each plant. When you factor in to this the fact that each seed can survive in the soil for up to 40 years, the numbers of seeds-in-waiting can be staggering. Most weed seeds germinate in response to clues that they have been brought to the surface, such as increased light. So one of the challenges a gardener faces is how to keep these seeds from germinating. Two of the best ways are to avoid deep tillage as much as feasible and to cover the surface with weed-free compost each year. Another way, which is often used in the lawn, is to apply Corn Meal Gluten that kills the weed plant as it germinates by affecting its first tiny roots.

There are some types of organic matter that are not good to add directly to your garden. If the organic matter contains too much carbon in relation to the nitrogen, it will rob the soil of its nitrogen as it breaks down giving your plants a hard time. Sawdust, for example which can contain 700 times more carbon than nitrogen can bring growth to a standstill especially if it is dug in. It needs to be composted first. For the same reason, although bark mulch can do many things for you including improving moisture retention, it should never be mixed into the top layer of soil.

 

2017 Perennial of the Year: Asclepias tuberosa

by Anne Milne

The Perennial of the year for 2017 is the Asclepias tuberosa, or as most of us know it, Butterfly Weed.

Butterfly weed is a hardy perennial that grows from 1/3 meter up to 1 meter (12 to 36 inches). It is a relative of milkweed, and is non-invasive. Butterfly weed is native to eastern North America. Its hardiness zones are 3 to 9.

Butterfly weed grows in clumps and produces orange or yellow clusters at the top of its stems. Blooms last from early summer to early fall. Keep the plant dead-headed to encourage reblooming. This plant likes full sun, and medium, well-drained fertile soils. It is drought tolerant, thus it does not like to be overwatered or overfertilized. It is also resistant to deer!

Butterfly weed attracts butterflies, and is also very attractive to humming birds, bees, ladybugs, and other beneficial insects. Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on the plant and the larva feed on its leaves. Monarchs also depend on its nectar as a food source.

Asclepias tuberosa can be grown from seed. Plant seeds in spring, after frost. Plants from seeds will likely not bloom for 2 or 3 years. Butterfly weed plants are also available at most reliable nurseries. Aesclepias tuberosa will also reseed itself. The seed pods will burst and float around your garden to start new plants.

Butterfly weed has few problems, but may have aphids or mealybugs. Because this plant is so vital to our Monarchy butterfly, rather than using pesticides, use your hose to spray and dislodge the pests from the plant.

Grow this plant in bunches, along with butterfly bush, bee balm and cone flowers, and you will make an outstanding display.