Friday, September 29, 2006

New Website

I have this new website that I've just started. Because I answer questions and write a regular gardening column, I needed a place to store all these questions/answers and opinions.

So this is it.

There are still some technological issues I'm working on - but it's up there and working away.

I note I do answer questions in my free gardening newsletter. I used to answer them from all over the web but as you can imagine, with several hundred coming in every day - it was more than a body could handle.

So if you do have a question, feel free to subscribe and ask away. Otherwise, I regret I can't help you out.

My Favorite Bonsai

Now this bonsai isn't all that old (I don't consider 50-ish old) :-) but it is an amazing bit of both garden art and horticulture. This darn thing is an entire forest in a single bonsai dish.

I can watch this plant arrangement for a long time and never get tired of it. And I have.

Wonderful stuff but I'm afraid not for the average gardener who kills them within a few weeks.

And with my watering record - they don't have a chance.

But that doesn't stop me from admiring those masters who do grow these wonderful plants.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Bonsai at 255 years old

This bonsai in the Japanese Pavillion at the Montreal Botanic Garden is 255 years old. Now that sign hasn't changed for a few years now but still... this is a long time to live in a pot.

Every time I see this plant, I simply stand in front of it and wonder what it has seen - who has cared for it - fed it - pruned it - indeed loved it.

I silently thank them and the tree every chance I get.

Monday, September 25, 2006

When a Picture is Worth A 1000 Words


Tuesday, September 19, 2006

How To Have a Better Garden Than the Neighbors

Abkhazi Gardens

The deal here is quite simple. Some writers believe you garden because you enjoy it – because you think it’s fun, spiritual, good exercise, on and on ad-nauseum.

We both know the real reason you garden is to show your neighbors you’re better at something than they are – even if their name is Jones.

But you can’t quite get it right. So here’s my ten best tips for making sure you have a better garden than those idiots next door.

And while they may sound anti-competitive on the surface, when you understand the power of these suggestions, you’ll understand this is training to get into the “zone of gardening”. And once you’re in that zone, nobody named Jones is going to be good enough to do your weeding.

1. Relax. Gardening is supposed to be enjoyable. I find too many folks bring an office or work mentality to the garden. Gotta get it done, gotta make it perfect, gotta … well, they just gotta. It is one of the last ways that nature has to touch our urbanized souls and if we are too busy or compulsive to listen to the message, then we are the losers. Perfection has no place in my garden and eaten leaves and the odd weed here and there, and even there again, are just part of the overall reflection of my soul in the garden.

There is no gotta get it done, gotta make it perfect that makes one iota of sense to me. Gardeners have a symptom I’ll refer to as garden anorexia – it’s the same form of problem that bothers young women.

Gardeners **have** to be picture perfect, young women **have** to be thin. Both problems stem from unreasonable expectations created by a photographic media. We understand that one is a disease yet we don’t see the one that influences us.

2. Have a place to sit in the garden. Without a place to sit down, the only time you’ll go into the garden is when you have work to do. You won’t sit down and just listen to the voices out there.

I named my boat Choir because of all the voices that surround me in nature. These voices sing to me (or complain to me) :-) but they are there and I only hear them when I take the time to sit and listen. I seldom hear them when I’m in my clean-up mode. Oh, I know they are there and I have to acknowledge their existence by the way that I behave in my garden but I don’t listen to them when I’m trying to get the weeding done before our dinner guests arrive. I do hear them when I sit down.

3. Get rid of the garden chemicals. For twenty years now, I’ve gardened and run a nursery without any noxious chemicals in my outdoor gardens. If I can do on a commercial scale, why can’t you do it on a home gardening scale?

Let me be clear. Sure I’ve lost plants to insects. Sometimes the caterpillars got ahead of me and decimated a columbine or other plant. But and this is the big BUT, they are part of the foodweb as well as I am. Without the caterpillars, I wouldn’t have butterflies. Without the aphids, I wouldn’t have hummingbirds. Without the grubs, I wouldn’t have birds.

Each of these creatures has as much right to life as I do and has a voice to contribute to the garden. I don’t have as many garden problems as many of my chemical gardening friends because I have a complete foodweb chain existing in my garden. The small insects eat the smaller insects, the birds eat the larger insects. It all goes round.

I see no need to spray stuff on the ground where my pets and feet bring it into the house to become incorporated into my life. I might lose plants but I do not lose my sense of humour or sense of what is right and wrong in my garden.

4. Use compost. Ahh, compost. I’ve written several articles about this stuff and the more I write and study its effects, the more convinced I am that modern chemical gardening has sold its soul to the devil and we are all paying the price.

Compost is the lifeblood of the inhabitants of the soil whether it be our garden or the farms that feed most of us. It feeds and nourishes the smallest of the soil organisms and they in turn feed and protect our plants. Modern science has shown how powerful compost is and how important it is to our soils and our own lives. We’ve turned our back on compost for much of our gardening and food growing; it is time to turn our own gardens around.

5. Feed the soil, not the plants. See the note on compost above. By feeding the soil, encouraging the micro-organisms to thrive, they in turn will make nutrients available to your plants and protect your plants by knocking out pathogens.

If you have healthy soil, you’ll have healthy plants. If you have healthy plants and healthy food, you will be healthy. If you have a healthy garden, your soul will know it as well as your body.

6. Get a good book on insect identification. The vast majority of insects in our garden are not harmful. In fact, these insects use the minority of problem bugs as a food source.

Before you spray – organic or chemical – know what you are trying to kill. Most of the time, you’ll find that the insect you are trying to kill is really there controlling the pest that is creating the damage.

Unfortunately, you can’t find the pest that is doing the damage, so you blame it all on the poor guy you can see.

On the same vein of thought, take the time to visit with a sick plant. When I see a plant that is not doing well, I go over and sit beside it and watch it. Often after watching for a few minutes, the plant will come into focus and I’ll see the **invisible** worm that is the exact colour as the leaf and is munching away. Don’t rush into killing things – you’ll often be mistaken about the real culprits in your garden.

7. Buy good tools. Good garden tools are more expensive than cut-rate stuff but they pay off in two major ways. The first is that they last longer. I’ve still got the first pair of pruning shears I purchased twenty-something years ago when I started the business. I will probably still have them in twenty years from now.

The second is that they are designed to be easier to use. Good shears like mine are easier on the hands than the cheap kinds and as my hands get older and stiffer, I find this to be more and more important.

If your shovel is the cheap stamped-metal kind, you’ll likely pick up and hold wet soil on the back of it. Because of the shape of my shovel, it will not hold soil on its back while I’m digging. If I don’t have to swing an extra few pounds of soil every time I dig a hole, I’m working easier and more efficiently. My old back loves “easier”.

8. Ignore experts. Yes you should. Ignore those mavens of design who tell you that your simple garden of petunias and marigolds isn’t quite up to **their** design standards. Do not get garden anorexia.

9. Get the best plants you can find. Use the best and forget the rest. Gardening life is too short to grow plants that do not perform. If that Forsythia never blooms because cold weather kills off the blossoms, rip it out and get a variety that does perform well. If that perennial droops over and never seems to blossom for very long – rip it out. Don’t like the colour of that plant – rip it out.

Don’t grow something just because you have it. Be selective and unless you enjoy the plant and it is working the way you want it to – get rid of it. Live **your** life in your garden.

10. Enjoy yourself. In whatever you call your garden, remember that **is** your garden. Do it your way.

11. See point 8 above.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Reflections on a First Year Garden

echinacea 'fragrant angel'
If you think about it for a moment, the state of our gardens may be a reflection on the state of our lives. Messy gardens imply a messy life; neat orderly gardens may therefore be a mark of a neat orderly life.

It would appear I have a few areas of my life that require work.

It always seems that my gardens and dreams outstrip my ability to maintain them, that the projects I want to do and wind up doing, like writing books, raising kids, sailing and working always get in the way of having one of those picture book gardens. My hoses don't get put away - pots wind up on the back porch too often without getting put downstairs - oh - if you're at all like me, you know what I mean. If you're not like me - you haven't a prayer of understanding my cluttered garden. My gardens never look as neat, orderly or peaceful as do those in the books.

My mind doesn't work that neatly or peacefully either.

Fall always seems to me to be a time to reflect on the past gardening year, to think of the things I've learned and see where I can do things differently next year. I can evaluate my greatest gains (flower beds built) and my greatest losses (vegetable garden destroyed by hornworms while on holiday) and I have to resolve to either change my ways for next year or suffer the consequences again.

I had better create a new mind because as I shrink my garden dreams into a smaller space, I'll need to maintain them all in a neater manner.

But what I need to do is not likely what I will do. My mind is rather like my garden I'm afraid. Lots of new plants and ideas. Lot of searching for just the right plant / word in the composition.

And a wonderful chaotic jumble of creativity I simply couldn't live without.

I think I've got it.

My garden design and my mind are simply cottage gardens with those impossible-to-design serendipitous colour combinations that might (or might not) work. The garden changes from year to year and so does my mind. I like to think the garden gets better (insert big grin here) so obviously does my mind. Some plant combinations and ideas work - others are simply "grand experiments".

So on reflection, there will never be an ordered garden in my life. It will always be a collection of interesting plants, new plants and just plain weird plants along with some very old and treasured favourites. And that sums up my mind as well I'm afraid. (chuckle)

Life's a giggle and so is my garden. Neither are much for changing I'm afraid.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Flower Bulb Sources

flower bulbs
If you're like me - you're looking at your fall garden and mentally sorting out the tasks - and one of the biggies is finding and planting some great flower bulbs. In my case, I've signed up with a local group and I've purchased a "bag" of bright yellow daffodils for planting (several hundred in the bag) in large clumps beside the house. We're importing the bulbs as a group from Holland (well, actually through a distributor who imports directly from Holland)

There are usually three sources for great Dutch flower bulbs at this time of year.

The first is your local garden shop. The advantage of this is that you can see the bulb you're buying. You know it isn't nicked or small - you can check for fungus (put it down if any of these conditions exist) and walk away if the quality isn't good. The local guys usually try to have good stock.

You can buy from reputable bulb folks (like these folks Brent and Becky Heath) to get your bulbs online.

Or you can succumb to really cheap bulbs in magazine or online ads. This is a bad idea.

Really cheap discount flower bulbs are small. Hey, there's a reason they're cheap.

Sometimes they don't come until the ground is frozen. Kinda hard to plant 'em then.

Sometimes they don't come at all. That actually makes them rather expensive.

Sometimes (well rather often) when you have a problem with a discount bulb shipper (remember they don't grow 'em - they only buy and sell) they'll "replace" your bulbs if you're unhappy. Yes - they simply send you a few more out of the same barrel as the first unsatisfactory shipment.

Really cheap discount flower bulbs are never really cheap.

Because in this life - you always get what you pay for. One way or the other - you pay the price. Ooops - sounds like the title of a sermon.

I gotta go pay the lady for my big bag of bulbs. Remind me will you.

Oh yeah, the picture above is courtesy of the Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center - good folks at

But they don't answer questions like I do at my flower bulb site

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Planting Bulbs

There is a rule of thumb for planting bulbs that many gardeners ignore. It goes like this - plant your bulbs 6-8 weeks before the ground freezes or is too cold for the bulbs to grow.

This length of time gives the bulb a chance to set roots and get acclimatized to the winter (making natural antifreeze etc) but not enough time or warm soil to start growing.

You can see the problem here I'm sure.

Just when does the soil get too cold?

In my USDA zone4 garden, I expect the end of November to be the average freezing date.

This means I plant bulbs in October - usually towards the middle or end. But not in September.

If you're warmer by a zone - you can delay by a week. So a USDA zone 5 gets till the first week in November before freezeup - back it up 6-8 weeks for the optimum planting date.

If you plant too early - the bulbs may start to grow underground (send shoots). If the bulb breaks dormancy, it may indeed not survive the winter.

So tell your gardening friends that just because retailers have bulbs for sale right now - there's no need to go nuts planting flower bulbs right now. Buy 'em but plant 'em later.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Storing Dahlia Bulbs

dahlia 'moonfire'
When it comes to storing dahlia bulbs, the rule of thumb is to keep them cool and dry.

As soon as frost hits them (the leaves turn black) cut off the stems, dig up the tubers (they're really tubers not bulbs) and then trim off the remaining stem down to one inch or so of the tuber.

Let them sit in the air for a day or three to dry off the dirt. Once the dirt will brush off, they are ready for storage. (Do brush off the dirt when it's dry but don't bruise or get too clean - the dirt isn't the problem, it's the moisture in the dirt that gets the tuber started rotting).

So - cool and dry until it is time to plant again.

p.s. the pic is variety 'Moonfire'

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Roundup Not Safe

We've been told over and over that Roundup - the single most used herbicide on the planet - is safe.

New studies indicate otherwise.

In my province of Ontario, a study "showed that exposure to glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, nearly doubled the risk of late miscarriages."

You might want to check out the Biosafety Information Center and the Institute of Science in Society.

Monsanto - the producer of both Roundup and many of the genetically modified foods it is used on disputes these findings.

Two Thumb Rules for Planting Flower Bulbs

There are two main questions starting to come up right now about planting flower bulbs and here are two rules of thumb to deal with them.

The first question is how deep do I plant bulbs?

The short answer (and there are a lot of longer ones) is that if it is a tulip bulb (or roughly the same size) plant it so the base of the bulb is 5-inches deep.

If it is smaller than a tulip bulb, plant it so the base of the flower bulb is 2-inches deep

If it is bigger than a tulip bulb, plant it so the base of the flower bulb is 8-inches deep.

Biggest rule of thumb. Planting flower bulbs isn’t rocket science. An inch here or there isn’t cause for plant failure and falling out of orbit.

The second question is “When Do I Plant My Flower Bulbs?”

You want to plant bulbs 6-8 weeks before the ground freezes in your area. Do not plant them when they come on sale (they’re on sale now around here).

This rule of green thumb means that in USDA zone 4, you’d be planting in early to mid October on an average year. For every zone warmer, you can plant the bulbs a week later.

This gives them enough time to set roots before the ground freezes but not enough time to start throwing shoots.

If you plant too early, the bulbs will not only set roots but will likely start growing underground shoots which will be frozen off and the bulbs will die over the winter. This is one reason we get so many “my bulbs died over the winter” type of complaints in the spring.

If you want more detailed information on caring for flower bulbs, you'll find it here.

Pond Supplies

I was asked what kind of ponds I'd had over my career in gardening and what I'd recommend.

To begin - I've dug my own natural bottom pond (well, I didn't dig it but I had a machine do so - it was approx 150x45' and ranged in depth from 8-16'). I've had plastic lined with no rocks - plastic lined with rocks, small preformed plastic liners (mostly in the greenhouse for displays but two did wind up in one garden, plastic deck ponds and wooden barrel deck ponds.

These were all constructed by myself (if you don't count the hi-hoe that dug the farm pond). :-)

What systems do I recommend? It depends.

What is it that you want a pond to do? Do you want to do the work yourself? How big is it? Is it a fish pond or a plant pond or both?

There are way too many questions to answer to give you one definitive answer.

Do I like Aquascapes? (the company in the previous posting) Sure. They provide a turnkey system for folks that don't want to build - can't build and haven't a foggy about how to build. They waltz in and give you a proven system that works from the get-go. They provide instructions on care and support system. You will pay for this. (As an aside - I do believe that Aquascapes has designed a system that works well for almost any situation if the pond owner follows the operating rules - as a landscaping "system" it is to be admired.)

But you will also pay for any landscaper to install any system. Some landscapers know what they're doing and some don't when it comes to ponds. Fact of life. And unless you can get references, you're the one taking the chance. So get references.

What system would I use when I build my ponds here? (I just bought this place last December and have been building gardens here ever since - but there's only so much time, energy and money to build so much every year on an old house that needs work as well) I want to emphasize the ponds have been designed so it's not "if" I'm putting them in but "when".

I wouldn't use Aquascapes or any other company. I can build my own. I'll figure out filter and pump sizes and layouts all by myself. I'll look for supplies at good pond supply places and install the system myself (the current design calls for filtration by bog - small water falls - and rather large water plant installations).

IMHO - you wouldn't spend that much money (a good pond can be expensive) on anything else in your life without doing your homework. I wrote an entire website on water gardening to give folks this kind of information.

So I dont' recommend any particular supplier or system because it depends on what you're going to do with your pond. I do recommend high end supplies (you'll pay for poor ones in other ways - like cheap pipe that cracks in the winter freezing and leaks so you have to dig up the landscaping to replace it with the expensive stuff you should have started with) ;-) and not taking shortcuts in construction techniques (you'll pay for these as well).

Am I an expert? Nah. I'm just a guy who's been there - dug that pond.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Water Gardening

water gardening
There is a debate in the water gardening world about rocks on the bottom of the pond. Now, we both know that this is a silly thing to debate when there are so many other more important things but hey - gardeners being gardeners, they'll debate and rant about things that somewhat - well - dumb.

And yes, if you want to clean the pond right down to the bare plastic, it will be really hard to do this with rocks there. Having said that - I note you don't have to clean right to the plastic. The stuff on the plastic is the good algae and we don't want to get rid of it.

For the plastic pond liner people, it is all about ease of maintenance. Nice argument but specious.

Water gardening cleaning is as simple as dropping the water level and hosing down the rocks. The force of a regular hose nozzle will float all the excessive organic matter out from between the rocks into the water where your pump (disconnect it from the filters so it is pumping directly out of the pond) will pump it onto your vegetable garden.

What stays behind is acceptable.

The root of this water gardening power-struggle is that a company called Aquascapes has come in - modernized the entire water gardening industry and made a lot of money in the process. They charge handsomely for their systems and installation and this annoys the heck out of water gardening landscapers who've been doing it the old way for quite some time. To be precise, it p**** off the established stuck-in-their-ways water gardening folks who don't want to look like they've been doing it wrong all these years.

Me. I don't give a fig which system is the easiest to clean. For my money - they both are and I've done both. I also don't care which system makes the landscaper the most money.

Let's even assume that those who build ponds both ways are right - they never have problems in their ponds. It isn't about which system is right or wrong, or cheapest or most expensive.

The bottom line for me is this.

I want a pond that looks real.

When was the last time you ever saw a natural water garden in the bush or swamp that had a black plastic liner installed by Mother Nature? That sat up there showing black plastic.

Black plastic on the bottom of a pond looks like black plastic. And it's ugly.

You want ugly?

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Pond Care

OK - so I don't have to do a lot of work in pond care by taking these leaves out of my small deck pond. But give me a break. That's a red maple leaf. This is September. The leaves are coming off this tree fast and furiously (good thing as it's going to be firewood for 2008) but littering everywhere.

So be prepared with your own ponds folks - get ready with your own pond care nets and scoop those leaves off the pond. Don't let them rot at the bottom to create problems (using up all the oxygen in the water) for your fish.

I note this is the tree that I girdled several times this summer in a vain effort to kill it. It has turned well ahead of the rest of my trees and I hope this means it is dying. My septic tank will be pleased (the roots are well established in there) and I will be if I don't have to call Mr. Rooter this winter.

But this is still an interesting reminder of what's ahead for us in our ponds.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

More Fall Lawn Care

One of the fall lawn care products you'll see in stores now are fertilizers featuring corn gluten. Corn gluten is an interesting by-product of corn milling that is quite safe to eat but doesn't let seeds germinate.

Research has pointed out that this is an excellent and totally benign way to stop weed seed from getting started in your lawn. It won't kill existing weeds but it does stop the new ones from starting.

The warning here is that you can't use any of these corn gluten products at the same time as you topdress (see previous post) to thicken up your lawn or want to establish your fall lawn care routine. Corn gluten kills off grass seed as quickly as it kills off crab grass seed and dandelion seeds.

So - use corn gluten in the spring - sow grass seed in the fall.

This way, the grass gets going strongly before next spring and the spring application of corn gluten stops crab grass and other annual weeds from germinating.

So - now go out and get that fall lawn care program underway.

Fall Lawn Care

Look folks, fall lawn care is pretty simple stuff. Now that it has started raining again and the nights are cool, it is a perfect time to take a look at the turf and get it ready for next year.

So, what I'm about to do in my front lawn.

I'll mow it again. With the rain of the last week, it has started growing. But I'll mow it as high as the mower deck can go. I want those grass blades as long as possible.

And I'll topdress with a minimum of 2 pounds of grass seed per 1000 square feet. If you want thick grass (you do!) then you have to add this amount of grass seed every year.

The bottom line - unless you fill in your grass and make it thick - the weeds will invade. Thick stands of grass are your first line of defense against weeds.

If you've treated your grass this year with a chemical (shame on you - here's how you can have a great lawn without chemicals) then you really need to add grass seed or the weeds will simply come back.

Grass doesn't "just fill in" empty spaces as the popular press would have you believe. You gotta help.

I use perennial rye grass because it establishes well as a topdress grass (better than any others) and because it's tougher than most and because you're an expert on hands and knees you won't know the difference between it and one of the most expensive Kentucky Bluegrass varieties.

For the record - I'll be applying around 3-4 pounds per 1000 square feet on this first year. I want a much better front lawn next spring.

And it is far too early to fertilize your lawn in the fall. Good fall lawn care means you don't feed that lawn until later in October when the grass tops are slowed right down. The feed will be used by the roots for overwintering.

That's it. Get busy out there.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Storm's Aftermath

tuberous begonia
I'm not complaining really - because strange as it may seem, I really like wind - particularly a good blowing wind. I am a sailor after all.

And this is the kind of thing you can expect after a big storm has moved through.

Combine high winds and rampant soft growth and something has to give. In this case, this tuberous begonia is pretty much done for the year anyway. It will continue to bloom and if I were a berserker gardener, I'd cut the shoot off about three inches long and root the tip of it in a glass of water. Then I'd overwinter it to start it again next year.

But I'm not one of those save the plants at all costs kind of guy. Those begonias are toast as soon as the frost comes or the wind returns - whichever comes first. I won't even try to save them although I'm considering saving the geranium next to it.

On the other hand.

The lemons, limes, and other tropicals however will be sprayed this week with insecticidal soap to start the process of eliminating winter hitchhikers and then they'll be brought inside. So while they survived the storm nicely, their outdoor life for 2006 is almost over.

The wheel turns again.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Award Winning Blogs

This is non-gardening related but if you read blogs and want to read some of this year's best award winners, you can get them at the bloggies.

And no - there are no gardening sites there but there are a ton of other interesting and useful - well, maybe interesting is where we'll leave it.

My favourite - Boing-Boing. Far away the best entertaining and interesting blog on the Net. I've subscribed to this since I started reading blogs.