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May 2011

Spring Gardening

Finally that refreshing time of year again. Geese are returning, days are lengthening, sap is flowing, buds are poised to open, the sun is more intense, and the air smells of spring- earthy, wet and warm. 

Spring Clean-up

Cleaning up your garden in the spring requires a little more caution than at other times of the year. Try to tread as carefully as possible-you may compact the soil if it is too wet and many plants can be set back significantly if their growth is interrupted so early in the season. Plants may be slow to emerge, especially if they are in the shade. Watch for the pointed furls of hosta leaves poking through the soil, mulch, or dense leaf litter. These furls of tightly wrapped leaves may not extend to their full dimension for many weeks. If your hosta needs dividing this would be a good time.  

Research Before You Buy

You may be tempted to buy the first appealing plants you see at the nursery or garden centre. Instead, record their names and do some research. Check the plants out with friends or neighbours, in resource books or on the Internet. It can be very disappointing to have your heart set on a plant only to find that it won’t survive the winter or in the location you imagined would be perfect for it. The plant may not be winter-hardy, needs moist shade and your garden is in hot sun, grows to 5 feet (1.5 metres)-too tall for your garden, or maybe it grows too well and in 2 years you will be yanking it out from where it stealthily invaded your entire garden. Another consideration is what the plant looks like when it is not flowering. A closeup of the flower on a plant label is seductive but may not be a good representation of the plant’s appearance without flowers.  On the Internet you will usually be able to find images of the entire plant and more details such as its hardiness zone. In our area, plants that survive the winter (or overwinter successfully) are hardy to zone 4 and lower, while zone 5 is a bit uncertain. Hardiness zones for the United States (US) are about 1 zone less than Canadian zones. Therefore, zone 5 in Canada is approximately equal to Zone 4 in the US. 

 Last Frost Date

Our last frost date, usually late in May or very early June, is about the earliest that most plants can be safely planted outdoors. Though, cold-hardy species, such as pansies and some vegetables, can be planted before this time.  

Spring Bulbs

After their flowers have faded, bulbs replenish themselves through the continued growth of their leaves for a few weeks after flowering. Leaving the leaves intact until they turn yellow or brown will help maintain the bulb’s longterm health.  

Annuals as Space Fillers, or for Consistent Colour and Reliable Flowering in the Shade

Using annuals to fill spaces in or around the edge of your gardens, until your perennials mature, is a good strategy. You may also use them in containers. Perennials typically flower for a short time, perhaps 1 to 4 weeks, while annuals can be relied upon for consistent, reliable colour throughout the season. Impatiens and Begonia flowers are favourites for reliable growth and abundant flowers in shaded areas where few perennials will flower.  

Vegetable Gardens

For vegetables that do better in cool weather, their seeds can be planted outside at the end of April, as soon as the soil is workable, well before the last frost date. These cool weather vegetables include lettuce, spinach, other salad greens, cabbages, broccoli, collards, and peas. For all other vegetables, seed packages will describe ideal planting conditions as “plant when all danger of frost has passed, or when the soil has warmed up” to a certain temperature, e.g. to 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit (18-24 degrees Celsius). Tomatoes are particularly sensitive to frost. Even a few degrees above freezing will kill them. Warm-soil germinators, or plant seeds that require warm soil to germinate, include carrots, squashes, herbs and beans.  

Lettuce and Other Salad Greens

Once the hot weather arrives later in June, the lettuce and salad greens will slow down or stop producing new leaves. Instead, they will send up tall, flower stalks and eventually seeds- this is called bolting. Some plants are described as bolt-resistant, slow to bolt, or slow bolting. To avoid bolting, if you do not have one of the few, bolt-resistant varieties, ensure that your salad greens are planted where they will receive some shade during the warmest part of the summer.  You can also stagger your planting by seeding rows or patches 2 weeks apart, with a break in July, and continuing again in mid.-August when the days begin to cool. This staggered seeding means that the leaves will mature at different times providing a continuous harvest for a good part of the summer. If you find it difficult to leave dedicated space for seeds not yet ready for planting, you can cover those areas with layers of newspaper weighted down with either rocks, a light sprinkling of soil, or straw. This will prevent weeds from taking hold and serve as a reminder that the area will be planted later.  A red leaf variety of lettuce, Red Vulcan, (Canadian sources: West Coast Seeds –BC: https://www.westcoastseeds.ca, or Veseys Seeds –PEI: http://www.veseys.com) is one of the most bolt-resistant varieties I have grown.  

Mulching and Edging

I like to consider mulch as the matte of a framed picture and the garden edge as the border or frame. Both mulch and edging can provide a complimentary backdrop for your plants and garden. But, be cautious again about applying mulch to established gardens early in the spring. Too early and you may smother any newly emerging plants. Leaves that fell on your gardens in the fall can remain there as a natural mulch to nourish the soil, discourage weeds, and conserve moisture.  

Inspiring Notes

During the spring and summer set aside some time to take photographs of your gardens and plants, and record what works and what doesn’t. Often perennial plants take a few years to get established.  For additional inspiration this year there is a group of new Hostas called the Tini Series. If you haven’t used hostas in containers before this might be the year, especially if the containers are in shade or partial shade. The Tini Series, about 15 cm tall, include ‘Appletini’, ‘Saketini’, ‘Limetini’, ‘Azuretini’, and ‘Lemontini’. In the fall the Hostas can be removed from their containers and buried in a garden for the winter.  Happy gardening.



Sept. 16, 2010   -59-

Fall Gardening

Now that the summer heat has eased and lawns don’t need much mowing, there are many things you can do in your vegetable and flower gardens this fall to give them a head start next spring. During the summer, you might have even been wondering if you shouldn’t move some of your perennials around, maybe a sun-loving Echinacea (coneflower) is getting too much shade or a clump of reed grass is looking sorrowful without more sun. Or maybe a maturing tree is now shading what used to be a full-sun flower bed. You may even have some annuals that can be brought indoors for the winter, and planted out again in the spring.

Bulbs in, bulbs out

Fall is also the time to plant those spring flowering bulbs, including tulips, daffodils, crocuses, hyacinth, blue bells, and muscari. Other bulbs already in your garden that will not survive a winter in Eastern Ontario include gladiolus, begonia, and dahlia. These flower bulbs need to be dug up when they have finished flowering, dried, and stored indoors.

Weather advantage

This is the best time of year to plant or transplant perennial flowers, shrubs or trees or divide perennials that are outgrowing their space. Not only is this cooler and less sun-intense weather good for the plants, it is also more comfortable for you. There is little risk of overheating and few, if any, black flies and mosquitoes. While the weather, in general, is already favourable for planting or transplanting plants, the best days will be overcast or with a light drizzle of rain, or even a day with rain forecasted in the following days. When plants are dug out there is a risk of their soil drying. You will be trying to minimize stress on the plants.

Cost advantage

The other advantages of fall planting is that the garden centres usually mark down their prices at this time of year and without the swarms of customers in the spring and early summer, staff will have more time to provide helpful information and suggestions, or answer your questions.

Advantages of fall gardening

  more rain

 plants are less expensive

 fewer mosquitoes and blackflies

 plants will bounce back faster in the spring

 cooler temperatures and lower humidity

 head start (you and the plants) on the next growing season

 plants have time to establish and recover from transplant or planting shock

Begin with a plan
Have a good look at your gardens. Was there anything that did not perform as it should have, maybe fewer flowers, flopping flower stalks, a reduced tomato crop? Or, maybe your plants were doing too well, they might have been thriving, shoving up against other plants or overpowering them. You will probably want to divide or cut these plants back by removing some of the roots or tubers. If you plant the surplus in pots, you can offer them to friends for their gardens, or use them to expand your own flower beds.

Or did you find you had a lapse in flowering at some time during the spring, summer, or fall, or did one flower colour dominate? Check out other gardens- did their hosta cope with full sun, were there flowers that did really well in the spring and then disappear during the summer? Or, the plant that was supposed to have a yellow flower turned out to be white instead. There always seem to be disappointments along with the pleasant surprises and successes.

Take notes and record ideas of what might be better in another location, what could be added, and what might need cutting back, or removed altogether. I find that this method works best if I take some preliminary notes and then reconsider my ideas over a few days or weeks. This gives me time to research and explore other options. The plant I had in deep shade that isn’t doing so well, might really need partial shade. Height, form, and colour are other issues. I mistakenly planted some Rudbeckia flowers at the front of one of my gardens. At four feet tall, they have been a conspicuous reminder all summer of my mistake. Easier to reach the flowers for cutting, but this doesn’t help the lavender struggling behind it.

Reduce plant stress

Since you don’t want plants that you have removed from the garden to dry out or become overly stressed from being transplanted, try to complete one garden renovation in a single day. Depending on what you plan to do, you may need to set aside a few hours. You may also find that your plans change once you start digging. What might have looked good on paper just doesn’t have the same effect in the garden.

Mulch and fertilize

This time of year is also best for adding mulch to your flower beds. In the spring it is easy to accidentally bury the late-emerging spikes of hosta with mulch.

Bonemeal is a granular fertilizer that promotes root growth- just what you want for your plants as they settle into the slow-growth and dormant phases of the fall and winter. Sprinkle some bonemeal in the hole around the plant before you top-up the final soil. How much? As a rough guide I add about 1 tablespoon for a small plant, 2 tablespoons for a large plant, and 4 tablespoons or ¼ cup for a tree.

Tips for Success

◊  have a plan

 focus on one garden bed at a time

 choose an overcast/cloudy/light rain day

 water frequently if rain is scarce over the following weeks

 have extra pails or large pots for temporarily holding plants that are being moved

 lift and transplant/plant the same day to minimize drying and stress on the plant

 keep lifted plants in the shade if you cannot plant them immediately, maybe with a moist blanket or towel surrounding the soil

 sprinkle bonemeal around the plant/tree when the hole is almost full

Vegetable gardens

Your vegetable garden can continue to produce even after a few frosts have flattened the tomato plants. Some vegetables are just beginning to sweeten up in the fall: greens like Brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage, swiss chard, and collards; and root crops like parsnip and horseradish. Kale can sometimes even survive the winter if the plants are left in the ground. Brussels sprouts sweetened by frost taste so much better than the ones usually available in the grocery stores. If you swore off these tasty min-cabbages when you were young, you may be pleasantly surprised what they taste like from your own garden. Potatoes and carrots can be harvested after frost as well.

Green manure

A few years ago I read that sowing fall rye or winter wheat in the vegetable garden can enrich the soil and discourage weeds. Typically weeds start inundating the garden early in the spring, before it is warm enough to plant any vegetables. A green manure crop in the winter will slow the weeds down. Providing nourishment to the soil using green manure serves a similar function to adding sheep, horse or cattle manure to the soil at spring planting time. Fall rye or winter wheat seeds are two winter crops that have worked well for me, and they may also be the easiest seeds to plant- just throw them on top of the soil. The seeds can be left like this or raked, rototilled, or turned into the soil by hand.

As soon as the snow is gone in the spring, lush green growth will appear. Seeds sown in the fall may germinate before the snow arrives or after the snow has melted. If you forget or don’t have time in the fall, the spring can work well too, just as long as you sow the seeds late in the winter, or very early in the spring, even before the last of the snow has gone.

At spring planting time, the green manure can turned into the soil with a rototiller, or by hand with a shovel or pitchfork. Fall rye or winter wheat seeds can be purchased in bulk at your local farmers’ co-operative.

Rewards of fall gardening

Your planning and garden work in the fall will be rewarded with a garden that perks up quickly in the spring, and takes full advantage of our short growing season. You will get more from your garden and spend less money in the process. Much like the end-of-season clothing sales- the plant nurseries might not have all the selection that was available at the start of the season, but discounted prices may make up for this.

Sit back and relax

In the spring, when your neighbours are loading up on new plants, frenetically tidying their gardens, and trying to remember what did/didn’t do well last year, you will be relaxing and spending more time enjoying your garden.