Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Outdoor Spaces for the Whole Family

Here in Ontario, Monday was a new holiday called "Family Day." As well as being a great excuse for a long weekend in the middle of winter, it's three days to take advantage of a long list of events and special activities geared toward families. 

In honour of this holiday, I thought that I would do a special post on gardens that are meant for the entire family.  

Just getting kids active and outdoors can be a huge challenge these days! If you have the budget, you can always invest in fancy outdoor play equipment, but that's certainly not the only way to go. Thankfully there are lots of inexpensive ways to get kids outside in the fresh air. 

Here's a list of simple ideas to get kids out of the house:

• Build a fort with outdoor chairs and some old sheets or blankets. 

• Have a backyard picnic or eat a family meal in the garden.

• When it comes to nature, it's important to create a sense of wonder. Turn over a rock or old log and see how many different kinds of insects you can spot.

• Organize a scavenger hunt for natural items.

• Lay back on the grass and watch the clouds on a hot afternoon.

• Take a night hike in the backyard with a flashlight. Teach them how to identify nocturnal insects.

• Look at things like insects up close with a magnifying glass.

• Camp out in the backyard. Pitch a small tent in the backyard and have a sleepover with a bunch of friends.

• The outdoors is a big place. Sometimes kids need a way to focus in to see what's right under their noses. Arm them with an inexpensive camera and go on a photo safari. Have them take pictures of bugs or flowers. Review the photos later and talk about what they discovered.

Steve Biggs, author of Grow Gardeners: Kid-Tested Gardening with Children, advises that parents should adopt a child-like approach to being outdoors. We adults forget the joy a puddle can bring or how much fun it is to play in the mud. Steve's "tool kit for play" involves simple, everyday items like leaves, soil, garden tools and water.

Here are a few ideas for outdoor themed fun:

• Paint a birdhouse and let the kids hang the finished project in a tree.

• Make a wind chime with large wooden beads or shells.

• Make a bird feeder and fill it with birdseed.

• Press flowers or make leaf prints with ink pads or paint on paper.

• Go on a worm hunt. Teach the kids how to handle them carefully and the importance of their role in the garden.

• Paint rocks or popsicle sticks as plant markers. A rounded rock with a little bit of paint might just as easily become a ladybug.

• Press leaves or flowers between the pages of a book to be used later to make greeting or birthday cards.

• Create a miniature or fairy garden.

In his book, Steve Biggs advises that once children enjoy playing and exploring outdoors, gardening is the next step. Just don't expect kids to garden exactly the same way adults do! Instead Steve recommends making adjustments like using larger seeds that are easy for small fingers to manage.

Here are some gardening ideas to get you started:

• Give kids their own space to garden. Keep it small and manageable.

• Plant vegetables that the kids actually like to eat. Let them harvest what they've grown and involve them in the process of turning that harvest into a snack or a meal.

• Choose plants that are fast to germinate and easy to grow. Plants with large seeds such as peas, beans or sunflowers are the perfect size for little fingers to plant. 

• Plant flowers that will attract butterflies and host plants that will feed caterpillars.

Avoid those cheap plastic tool sets that only break. Invest in a few basic tools like a shovel, trowel and watering can that are small and light enough for a child to manage.

• Encourage kids to participate in regular waterings even if they get wet or muddy.

• Show older children how to make new plants from cuttings.

Watch this HouzzTV video to see how one family created an outdoor living space for their modern-style home. One thing these parents discovered is that children, who participate in growing edible plants, are more likely to eat them!

Another HouzzTV video about a tiny edible garden in California that still manages to produce fruit, vegetables and herbs for a small family. 

A healing garden designed for children at the Headwaters Health Centre in Orangeville, Ontario.

Echinacea and Rudbeckia

A huge, brightly-colored moose may be a bit much for an average-sized backyard, but it works perfectly in this garden at the Headwaters Health Centre in Orangeville, Ontario.


If your kids are old enough, get them involved in the garden design process. Ask them for suggestions of what they'd like to see. They'll be much more likely to feel a sense of ownership and actually use the space, if they have some part in the planning and construction phases of a garden.

Designing a garden with kids in mind:

• Choose resilient plants that can take some potentially rough handling. 

• A child's garden should be fun and colorful. As well as plants, outdoor furniture, plant supports, birdhouses and plant pots are ways to inject color into a garden.

• Add a sandbox where they can dig freely and happily.

• Choose plants with interesting textures and smells. The foliage of this Agastache for instance, has a mild liquorice scent. Lavender, scented geranium, rosemary, mint and thyme are just a few of the many fragrant plant options. 

• Invite kids to touch with plants that are soft or feathery like ferns or velvety like Lambs Ears. 

• Build a small playhouse.

• Include a kids sized table for activities such as tea parties, outdoor meals and crafts.

• Add a treehouse to the backyard (just be sure to check local building codes before you build). Take a look at the amazing treehouse in this HouzzTV video:

Kids love to have their own space. Here an entire section of the backyard has been designed specifically for the younger members of the family.

Gardening is such a great way for kids to connect with the nature and foster a life-long love of the outdoors! Happy Family Day!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Unexpected House Pests

Yikes! There's something on crawling on your houseplants! In her first post of 2017, Jean Godawa tackles the subject of unexpected and unwelcome visitors that seem to appear out of nowhere.

Before the middle of the 17th century, people believed that some animals could spontaneously generate under the right conditions. According to the wisdom of the time, you could make a colony of mice simply by putting some dirty rags and a bit of wheat into a barrel. Likewise, if you left a carcass of meat hanging, you could create a swarm of flies. The idea that the right conditions just attract these creatures from somewhere else was not even considered. We know better now thanks to science and experimentation.

But if you've ever had a fittonia in your house develop mealy bugs, seemingly out of nowhere, you might start to understand that 17th century mid-set. If you keep your plants indoors, you shouldn't have to think about insects, should you?

Unfortunately, indoor plants are just as susceptible to certain pests as their outdoor counterparts, but not by spontaneous generation. Introducing new plants into your home, leaving windows open, putting houseplants outside during good weather are all invitations for unwanted pests.

A favourite meal to ladybugs, aphids (Aphididae) are not just pests of outdoor plants. These tiny (approx. 4 to 8 mm) bugs are easy to recognize with their pear shape and two short, stick-like cornicles near their backside. Aphids can have both winged and wingless forms and vary in colour depending on the species.

In their winged form, they can fly into your home and lay eggs on your houseplants. Aphids can also hide on fruits and vegetables at the grocery store where they have unlimited food and no predators. If you bring home any produce, even with a single aphid on it, your houseplants could soon be covered in the pests. Aphids are one of the few insects that are capable of parthenogenesis. That is, they can reproduce without mating.

These creatures use a short, beak-like mouth to pierce plant leaves or shoots and suck out the fluid. They excrete a clear, sticky substance called honeydew, which can often invite mold growth. Because of the way they feed, aphids are also capable of transmitting plant viruses from one plant to another.

Typically, a few aphids on a healthy houseplant won't kill it but they can become a problem if you don't intervene. If your houseplant is a sturdy one, take it outside and knock off the aphids with a forceful blast of water from the hose. For more delicate houseplants, treat aphids with an insecticidal soap or horticultural oil.

If your houseplants start to develop a cottony white substance on the underside of leaves or on the stems, take a closer look. That white mass could be a group of plant sucking mealybugs (Pseudococcidae). These creatures are elongated, oval bugs coated with a waxy secretion and are common pests of houseplants.

Mealybugs can be difficult to control because they spread easily. Being so small, they can crawl undetected from one plant to another or can be transferred by a slight breeze. The waxy coating protects the bugs from too much or too little moisture as well as from insecticidal sprays.

When introducing a new plant to the home, keep it quarantined, away from your other houseplants, for a couple of months to make sure it's healthy and pest free. For small infestations, pick the bugs off by hand or use a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol to remove them. A small paintbrush dipped in mild dish soap can also help knock mealybugs off your plants. Unfortunately, you may need to discard a heavily infested houseplant to protect your other plants.

Another common houseplant and greenhouse pest is the whitefly (Aleyrodidae). At 2 to 3 mm long, this tiny pest can still cause quite a bit of damage. Like their aphid and mealybug cousins, whiteflies have a needle-like mouth they use to pierce plant tissue and suck out the fluid. Their feeding damages leaves and stems causing yellowing and wilting. The yellowish body and white wings of the whitefly are covered with a white powdery coating. These insects can also transmit plant viruses and can produce honeydew that fosters mold growth.

When immature whiteflies first hatch from their eggs, they crawl to a suitable area of the plant. As they develop, these larvae become oval, flattened and immobile until they pupate into winged adults. Insecticidal soaps are most effective on the immature bugs but will also work to get rid of the adults. Check the underside of leaves for the larvae if you notice whiteflies around your houseplants.

If leaves on your houseplants are dropping off or have yellow spotting (stippling) or webbing, particularly on the undersides, you may have a problem with spider mites (Acarina). These eight-legged creatures, relatives of spiders, may not be visible unless you look very closely, but their damage usually gives them away. Spider mites are another common destructive houseplant pest but they can be treated with insecticidal soap. As with all houseplant pests, it is better for the health of your other plants to discard a heavily infested one.

It would be easy to ignore or overlook scale insects (Coccoidea) as they look nothing like a typical insect. Throughout most of their immature lives, they have no antennae or legs and remain motionless while they feed. They often look like natural knots or bumps on stems. Some scale species are quite useful - shellac comes from a scale insect, as do some red dyes (cochineal). Despite this, many scale species are serious pests to indoor plants, and in large numbers can be very destructive.

While houseplants are typically protected from the multitude of potential pests outside, they are at a bit of a disadvantage indoors. An infested houseplant can't get help from any of the beneficial insects living in the garden. As much as I am fascinated by insects, I can't set a bunch of ladybugs loose in my home to deal with aphids and I'm not about to introduce parasitic wasps into my living room to get rid of scale insects on a ficus.

Our solutions for dealing with pests of indoor plants are more limited. Hand removal, trimming off infested leaves, applying insecticidal soap or horticultural oil can usually take care of most minor houseplant pests. 

The best option, though, is prevention. If you accept clippings from a friend or buy new plants, be sure to quarantine them first. Wash fruits and vegetables well when you bring them inside from the store or garden. If you put your plants outside in warm weather, frequently inspect them for unwanted pests.

If houseplant pests do show up, they could have hatched from eggs in the potting soil or entered through a slight crack around a window. Healthy plants can tolerate a few bugs and as long as you inspect plants often, and treat them early, pests are manageable.

Like mice in a barrel or rats on a ship, bugs don't spontaneously generate on indoor plants. Even though I know this, I am sometimes, very briefly, convinced that fruit flies can magically appear from another dimension. When I'm sure that I've thoroughly washed all the peaches in a basket from the market, those pesky little creatures will still be flying around my kitchen.

(Click this link to find out how to make your own insecticidal soap.)

Post written by Jean Godawa

Jean is a science teacher and writer. She has been writing science-related articles for print and online publications for more than ten years. Jean holds a degree in biology and environmental science with a focus on entomology from the University of Toronto. She had conducted field research in the tropical rainforests of Asia and South America.

Photo Credits for this post: Many thanks to Leslie Ingram, David Capparet, Jeffery W. Lotz, Charles Olsen, Chazz Hesselein and Ken Sproule for allowing us to use of the photographs in this post.00

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

African Violets

African Violets have a special place in my heart. As newlyweds, I had a row of them along the one and only window in our first apartment. The ones with pink, purple and maroon flowers were my absolute favourites, but all my violets did really well despite the lack of ideal growing conditions. Always there seemed to be a least a few plants with flowers.

African Violets were a very affordable purchase for a newlywed. Even today, you should still be able to find a plant for $5 or less.

Though they are commonly available in an array of stores, it is worth a bit of extra effort to shop for a healthy plant that will get you off to a good start. I was in Walmart the other day and saw cheap, but bedraggled looking plants with blooms that were well past their prime. Don't buy one of those violets!

It's so much better to take the time to find a plant with healthy, undamaged foliage that is covered in half-opened flower buds.

Care Basics:

African Violets do have a few quirks, but they are pretty easy to grow.

Light: African violets like bright, indirect sunlight. Full sun will scorch their foliage. A north or east facing window is the perfect choice.

To help your plant keep a nice round shape, rotate your African Violet every time you water it. That way all the leaves will get the same amount of light.

Cold and Humidity: African violets don't like cold drafts, so don't place them up against the cold glass of a window or near an entrance door. The temperature around your plants should never drop below 65 degrees F.

The native habitat of an African Violet is the mountains of East Africa. It's a lot more humid there than it is in the average home! To increase the humidity around your plants, you can group them together (but not so close that their leaves are touching. You still want to have some air circulation to prevent fungi like Botrytis and Powdery Mildew).


Water droplets can damage the soft, velvety foliage of an African Violet, so watering requires a little bit of extra care.

The water should always be room temperature and never cold. If the water is too cold, it will cause the leaves to curl down as the water is absorbed.

You can try to gently move the leaves aside and water around the base of the plant, but you have to be super careful not to snap off the leaves or splash the foliage. (If you do splash the foliage, mop it up immediately with a tissue and cross your fingers.) 

If you can find one at a garage sale or charity shop, an old fashioned watering can with a long, pencil-thin spout would be a much safer way to water.

The tried and true way to water your African Violets is to water from the bottom. Place the plant into a saucer or tray with about an inch of room temperature water. Allow the violet to absorb the water up from the base of the plant. Remove it from the water when the soil in the pot feels moist, but not soggy (about thirty or forty minutes).

How often should you water? Water when the plant feels light when you lift it up and when the soil just below the surface of the pot feels dry to the touch (about once a week).

Soil: Ordinary potting soil is too heavy and holds too much moisture for African Violets. They like good drainage and lots of aeration around their roots. Look for one of the potting mixes made especially for African Violets that are a blend of sphagnum peat moss and perlite. (There are many brands available. This is just one example.)

Ongoing Care:

If any suckers (new growth on the main stem of your plant) develop, remove them as they can lead to misshapen plants.

Pinch off spent blooms and flower stems to encourage the development of new blooms.

Fertilizer: To keep your plant healthy, it is a good idea to feed it with some organic fertilizer when you water. 

Repotting: Experts recommend that you repot an African Violet with fresh soil once a year and/or when your African Violet becomes root bound. 

African Violets grow out from the centre rather than down, so they prefer a wide, shallow pot rather than a deep one. If you use a deep container, the roots won't reach the bottom of the pot. Devoid of roots, the soil will stay soggy. That is when root rot or a fungal disease are likely to develop. 

The size of the new pot should be about one-third the diameter of the leaves. For example, if the plant is 12", the perfect container will be 4" wide and 3" deep. A porous clay pot will absorb extra moisture, so it is a better and more attractive option than a plastic pot.

Make sure that the repotted plant is at the same depth in the soil as it was in the original container.Water the plant thoroughly and allow it to drain.

Dealing with a plant that has developed a "neck"

As the outer circle of leaves on your violet mature and get damaged, you'll want to remove them to keep the plant looking its best. The only problem with snapping off old foliage, is the plant can end up with a "neck". If your African Violet has developed this problem, you'll want to repot it and rebury the neck. 

To do this, remove the plant from its pot. Strip the leaves back to a healthy centre and remove any flowers. Scrap off the scale that covers the neck with a clean knife. Work some of the soil loose from the root ball. (If the root ball is really compacted, cut off the bottom third of the root ball with a knife.) 

Add some fresh soil into the bottom of the original pot and then place plant back inside. Working your way around the circumference of pot, continue to add fresh soil. Don't compact the soil with your fingers. Leave it nice and loose. 

Finally, brush away any soil that may fallen on the leaves. Water the plant thoroughly.

Possible reasons your plant isn't flowering:

Not enough light–If an African Violet does not get enough light, it will stop flowering and its leaves may become elongated or turn yellow.

Too big a pot–African Violets bloom better when they are slightly pot bound.

Other Possible Problems:

Overwatering is one of the most common problems associated with African Violets. They like moist soil, but don't like it when the soil is soggy and wet.

Root Rot or Crown Rot: Here is a video from the African Violet Society of American that demonstrates how to repot a plant suffering from root rot.

With all these tips and suggestions, I worry that I have made African Violets seem fussy. Honestly, once you get to know them, they are the most easy-going of plants. And they bloom for ages! 

My husband and I have come along way since that first apartment. We've been married for over thirty years now, but some things never change. There are still African Violets lined up on my windowsill.

What's your experiences with African Violets? Please share!

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Saturday, February 11, 2017

A Guide to Northeastern Gardening: Review and Giveaway

Late bloomers often pursue their true passions late in life. After a long career in education, Lee Miller decided to pursue one of her greatest passions; landscape design. 

Her interest in gardening began as a child. She writes in her first book, A Guide to Northeastern Gardening, "At the age of seven my father stopped at the side of the road and rescued a small excavated Eastern Red Cedar that had been left for dead. We brought it home and I planted my first tree. That very tree, now over fifteen feet high, still grows at the very back of our property on the South Shore of Long Island, New York."

Fittingly enough, the house that Lee shares with her husband was once a flower farm that grew Gladioli. Here are some views of Lee's amazing garden taken by the author herself:

A view of the front walkway from September 2016. Photo by Lee Miller

A well organized list of posts on her blog, A Guide to Northeastern Gardening, show her garden through the months of the gardening season. The posts stretch way back to 2011. It's nice to able to see changes in the garden through the months and over the years. Take a look yourself here.

The view along Lee's front walkway is serene. The color palette is quiet, but that only serves to draw your attention to what is the real star– texture. The clumps of Variegated Liriope are a great example of the power of repetition. Your eye follows the Lirope right down the walkway.

Variegated Liriope Photo by Lee Miller

East perennial border. Photo by Lee Miller.

A riot of color from July 2016. You can get a list of the plants here.

A gorgeous shot Lee took of a Coneflower, Echinaea 'Cheyenne Spirit'.

Another picture taken by Lee in July 2016. Again, there is plant information in her blog post.

Backyard long view. Photo by Lee Miller

Throughout her career as a teacher, Lee found herself helping friends and neighbours with landscaping projects. With the encouragement of family and friends, she decided to further her education in horticulture and design. With her studies complete, Lee opened a landscape/garden design company in 1996.

Let's take a quick look at just a few of the many projects Lee has designed:

Here a blank corner turns into something rather spectacular. 

Lee says that, "The client wanted a beautiful cottage style perennial garden in memory of her grandmother. She wanted to be able to enjoy ongoing colorful blooms that she could view from her patio. The flowers that I selected varied in height to make a layered look. Their bloom sequence would commence in May, continue throughout the entire summer, and on into the fall. Foliage plants like Heuchera (Coral Bells) and Artemisia were added to provide additional interest."

Note: This design appears in Chapter 6 of Lee's latest book in with a numbered layout and plant descriptions. 

In this above "before", the shed looks isolated and out of place in the landscape. With the addition of the garden beds, the playhouse no longer looks foreign, it's apart of the garden. 

I like that Lee added pathways through the plantings. In my opinion, a garden shouldn't be something you admire from a polite distance. A garden should be something that is experienced.

Homeowners often struggle with what to do at the front of their house. I asked Lee what she thought was the biggest mistake people make when creating a front garden and what could be done to avoid it. Here's her answer:

"The biggest mistake homeowners can make is choosing the wrong type of plant for the site. In this particular design, you'll notice that low growing boxwood were used as the foundation evergreen along the front of the porch. The variety chosen will only reach an eventual height of 2 or 3 feet. They'll never overgrow the space or hide the porch down the road. The Japanese Maple will provide beautiful burgundy foliage throughout the warmer seasons and structure in winter. The blue and golden hued evergreens will provide structure and color all year round. Perennials like Salvia 'May Night', Sedum 'Brilliant' and Daylily 'Stella D'Oro' bring additional interest through the summer months."

 Salvia 'May Night' (foreground) and Sedum 'Brilliant' in behind. Photo by Lee Miller

If you want to see more of these before and afters, you can watch a slideshow here.

Lee's first book is an accumulation of years of experience as a gardener and designer. 

Who would I recommend this book for? I'd say it would be a great reference for a novice or intermediate gardener in the northeastern part of the U.S. (or any garden zones 3-9. Many of the plants Lee suggests would work in my zone 6 garden for instance)

A gardener, who is just starting out, could easily comb through the book's chapters and begin to plan their garden based on a selection from Lee's list of recommended perennials, trees and shrubs (for both sun and shade).

One of the early chapters in the book is "Long Blooming Perennials for your Garden." I thought, as I dived into this chapter, that narrowing a list down to ten plants can't have been easy. It would be like picking a favourite child! Still Lee was able to come up with a list of great, dependable plants including the Heuchera 'Caramel' that you see above. Each choice based on Lee's own experiences and is augmented with a helpful plant profile.

If you have problems with deer, chapter 3 with a list and profiles for deer resistant plants is for you. Shade garden? Then you want to check out chapter 10. 

Photo by Lee Miller

Photo by Lee Miller from September 2016. Click the link for more information.

As you can see from Lee's own garden, she knows how to work with evergreens, shrubs and flowering trees. Though I am a fairly experienced gardener, I am not nearly so confident when it comes to dwarf or weeping evergreens, so I really appreciated the chapters dedicated to conifers.

Simply picking out plants isn't nearly enough. The book provides helpful information on the elements of garden design; structure, form, color, foliage and texture

I particularly enjoyed Chapter 7: The Design of a Long Island Native Garden which details the steps from design to execution for one of Lee's bigger projects. I found myself wondering, "Gosh, what would I do if I had to tackle a large project like this?" It was fun to follow Lee's thought process and she how she decided to approach the design challenges.

The final section of the book has handy maps with garden zones and the answers to frequently asked questions. Here are just a few examples of the questions answered:

• Watering in winter
• The planting depth for trees 
• Rejuvenating daylilies
• The type of mulch you should use

While this post focuses on Lee's first book, I want to make a quick mention that she has just published her second book Landscape Design Combinations. This book picks up where the first book left off and digs deeper into the design process. Read more about Lee's latest book here.

In conclusion, I want to say how much I admire all Lee has accomplished. There are days in my late fifties when I feel just plain tired! LOL To start a successful landscape design company and self-publish two books in pre-retirement are truly impressive accomplishments.

Lee has very kindly given me a copy of her first book to give away. 

If you would like to be entered in the book draw, please leave a comment below. Because the book will have to be sent out in the mail, regrettably I am going to have to limit entry in the draw to readers in Canada and the U.S.A.
If your not a blogger, but would still like to enter the draw, you are welcome to email me at 
Entry in the draw closes on February 25th. 

If you want to go ahead and order a book, here is a link to A Guide to Northeastern Gardening on Amazon. Here is a link to Lee's latest book Landscape Design Combinations also on Amazon.

About the Author:

Lee Miller is a professional landscape designer who has been involved in the horticultural industry for a little over twenty years. She is also the author of the blog A Guide to Northeastern Gardening where she shares her love of gardening and her journey as a designer. As well as the blog, Lee also contributes articles to the American Heart Association blog and the website Gardening Know How
A Guide to Northeastern Gardening was Lee's first book on gardening. Her latest book Landscape Design Combinations is a comprehensive guide that helps home gardeners plan their outdoor spaces.