Thursday, March 26, 2015

My Spring Wish List: Seed Starting

Yesterday it was -16 degrees Celsius and the wind made it feel even colder. I shouldn't complain- at least we didn't get touched by any of the snow spring storms that struck the East coast of Canada. My enterprising brother in Halifax, Nova Scotia made an igloo in the backyard and he and his 4 year old son camped out for a night inside it. 

With the exception of a few stubborn patches, our snow is almost gone. The garden emerging from under the blanket of white snow looks brown and exhausted. What we need now is some warmth and a bit to rain to bring around that miraculous transformation to fresh shades of green.

To usher in the official arrival of spring, my first order of seeds arrived in the mail last week. 

Annual seedlings available at local nurseries tend to be limited to traditional favourites. Last year I found that starting my own flowers from seed opened up the possibility of growing so many more interesting and unusual types of annuals.

So... what flower seeds did I order?

I have been growing biennial foxgloves every spring for a few years now. This year I thought I'd try Sutton's Apricot which are a soft peachy-pink color.

Verbena bonariensis seeds have proved hard to find at local nurseries. So this year I mail ordered some.

In my Zone 6 garden, these are an annual, but Verbena bonariensis are a tender perennial in zones 7-10. 

Verbena bonariensis like sun and moist, well-drained soil. Sprout time: 10-30 days. Sow 6-10 weeks before planting out after frost. Plant height: 4'. Seed depth: 1/16 inch. Sprout time:10-30 days.  Sow 6-8 weeks before planting out after frost. 

I've always grown the more standard orange varieties of Calendula. These yellow Calendula from Select Seeds looked like an interesting alternative.

Calendula 'Kablouna Lemon' , calendula officinalis (annual) have a crested centre and a halo of lemon colored petals. Seed depth: 1/4 inch. Sprout time: 5-14 days.  Sow 4-6 weeks indoors before planting out after last frost or direct sow outdoors in early spring.

I also ordered these ruffled Cosmos just for a change of pace:

Cosmos 'Rose Bonbon', Cosmos bipinnatus (annual) are a compact plants with double pink cosmos. Seed depth: 1/8-1/4 inch. Sprout time: 3-10 days.  Sow 4-5 weeks indoors before planting out after last frost.

Cosmos 'Snowpuff', Cosmos bipinnatus (annual) with double white flowers. Seed depth: 1/8-1/4 inch. Sprout time: 3-10 days.  Sow 4-5 weeks indoors before planting out after last frost.

Nigella, Love-in-the-mist 'Persian Red': I grew the more common blue and white Nigella last year and thought some rose flowers might mix in nicely. Seed depth1/16 inch. Sprout time: 7-14 days. Sow direct in early spring.

Lavatera 'Pink Blush' : I thought I'd try this soft pink variety. Lavatera gets quite tall ( 2.5-3 ft) and fairly bushy. It likes sun and lots of water. Lavatera is best planted in rich, well-drained soil. Seed depth:1/16 inch. Sprout time:10-40 days. Sow indoors 6-10 weeks before planting out after frost.

Have you noticed? Frilly flowers seems to be a recurring theme in my seed choices. 

I've always loved double poppies, so I picked up some Peony Poppy seeds from Floribunda Seeds when I was at Canada Blooms. Seed depth:1/16 inch. Sow directly in early spring. Poppies don't like to be transplanted. Full sun. 

If you like the shaggy lilac colored poppies (seen above) that I photographed in Joe's garden here is a link to similar poppies offered by Select Seeds.

Even though they are reputed to be prolific self-seeders, I want to try my hand at growing annual Candytuft. 

Annual Candytuft, Iberis Umbellata: Height 30-40 cm. Full sun. Flowers range from white to pink and mauve. These plants are taller and less compact to their more familiar white flowering perennial cousins.

Here are a few seed starting basics (lessons I've learned the hard way!):

Read the information on the back of your seed packets as soon as you get them so you can plan properly. For example, some seeds need a period of cold to germinate. It will be a little late to discover this important information like this later in the spring when the weather is already warm.

Pay heed to planting depths: Remember you are not burying treasure, you are sowing seed. Each seed type will have a recommended planting depth. Some seeds, like the foxgloves I ordered, are teeny-tiny and should be sown directly onto the surface of the soil. On the other hand, the Lavatera I will be planting needs to be planted at a depth of 1/4", while the love-in-the Mist needs a depth of 1/16" of an inch.

Sow your seed thinly: I have a bad habit of over sowing and that only produces weak, spindly seedlings. Try to sow thinly, and if like me you tend to get carried away, thin out the seedlings to give them room and better air circulation.

Annual Rubeckia I grew last year from seed

Some types of annuals hate to be moved: Last year I planted sunflowers and rudbeckia in a nursery bed with the grand plan to move them into their final positions in the garden when they got big enough. 
But when they were transplanted, the sunflowers and rudbeckia wilted immediately, and though they eventually recovered, they sulked for days. I am thinking of starting them in plug trays, where I figure I have a greater chance of creating firm root ball that will make transplanting less stressful for the young plants. Perhaps you have a better method?

I am looking forward to getting my seeds started. Now if only the weather would co-operate!

Friday, March 20, 2015

More Ideas for the Narrow Space Between Suburban Homes

Private garden, Mississauga ON

Happy first day of spring! In today's post, I have ten ideas for that long, awkward space 
between suburban homes.

Private garden, Mississauga ON

1. Create with a striking entrance to entice friendly visitors. A pretty gate also creates a bit of a mystery by blocking the view to the back garden.

Private garden, Toronto, ON

2. Add decorative details to your gate like a door bell, a welcome sign or a wrought 
iron wall decoration.

3. Keep it neat and choose low maintenance plants. Who wants to try to manoeuvre a lawn mower in the tight area at the side of a house?

The box hedge lining this path probably needs no more than a trim once or twice a year.

4. Choose plants that will look good throughout the seasons.

The small scale conifer and hostas (assuming you can keep the slugs at bay) in this example are going to look great from spring into fall. The two also mix to create a lovely texture story.

Private garden, Toronto, ON

5. Create a path that is both attractive and comfortable to walk on. This even walkway will make it easy to roll bikes, wheelbarrows and recycling bins in and out of the backyard.

Private garden, Burlington, ON

This is one of my all time favourite pathways. I love the mix of flat stones and large pebbles.

Private garden, Mississauga ON

In this example, reddish colored pine mulch contrasts nicely with the grey bricks.

Private garden, Toronto, ON

6. Make sure the view in the distance is attractive. 

Who wouldn't want to enter this back garden just to get a closer look at that pink Beauty Bush?

Private garden, Mississauga ON

Here the view is to a less glamourous utility shed, but it everything is still tidy and presentable.

7. There is usually walls or fencing between suburban homes. 

Attach a trellis and take advantage of this vertical space to grow something beautiful. If you are lucky enough to have sun, try a honeysuckle, clematis or a climbing rose.

Private garden, Mississauga ON

Private Garden, Brampton, ON

Private Garden, Brampton, ON

If you have a shady wall and lots of room, a Climbing Hydrangea like the 
one seen above might be nice.

Private Garden, Brampton, ON

8. Even a chain link fence can be dressed up with hanging baskets.

Private garden, Mississauga ON

In this instance, the path accommodates differing elevations and an 
entrance at the side of the house.

Private garden, Mississauga ON

9. The area at the between houses is usually quite shady, so select plants that will thrive in shade or part shade. 

In this garden hostas, ferns, Bleeding Heart, Periwinkle have all been incorporated. 

Aren't the textural leaves of this hosta amazing?

10. Hang a decorative ornament to embellish a plain Jane fence. This faux window also brings the flowers up to eye level where you can appreciate them best.

Have a wonderful weekend!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A Pretty Muse: Cleome

Several people asked about the flower I had in my header last week, so I thought I might feature it in the blog this week: it's Cleome. 

As a young plant, Cleome is a bit of an ugly duckling. The foliage is sometimes compared in appearance to marijuana. Grow a big patch of it and nosy neighbours might begin to wonder you're panning on smokin'!

Cleome don't begin to impress until the plants are well-established sometime in summer. By the time August arrives, the flowers seem to glow in golden light of late summer.

As much as you might think Cleome is a nice flower, it pays to research any plant you want to consider for your garden. This may sound like a bit of drudgery, but it is a smart idea to make yourself aware of any problem issues associated with the plant. A little bit of investigation will also help you chose the cultivar that will work best for your needs.

Cleome's long stamens are responsible for the common names "Spider Flower" and "Old Man's Wiskers".

The flowers have no fragrance, but the foliage has a slight scent that I have heard described as anything from 'minty' to having the 'aromatic smell of a skunk'. One review I read boasted that the unpleasant smell was enough deter deer.

The stems are a another prickly issue. They have thorn-like spines, so you definitely want to wear gloves when working among Cleome.

Cleome is an annual flower here in zone 6, but a perennial plant in zones 10 and 11. 

Every thing I have read suggests that you should grow them outdoors in early spring from seed rather than starting them indoors. (Apparently they require bottom heat for indoor germination and don't like to be transplanted). With our short growing season here in Southern Ontario, I am thinking of buying seedlings that have a good head start from a local nursery.

Plant Cleome in average garden soil with at least 6 hours of sun. Too much organic matter can actually lead to leggy plants. 

Water seedlings well to get them established, but after that, they are drought tolerant. 

Be aware that taller varieties may require staking. 

Hummingbirds, bees, butterflies and hummingbird moths all love these flowers. 

Unfortunately they do not make particularly good cut flowers.

Be warned: Cleome self-seed to the point of becoming a bit of a nuisance and in some cases can even become invasive. 

You can lessen this problem by removing the long slender seed pods are they appear, but this requires diligence and effort. 

Perhaps a better option is to select one of newer varieties like Senorita Rosalita, which produce seeds that are sterile.

Sparkler Series are hybrid cleome with a shorter, bushier habit (3.5-4 ft). They tend ot be more vigorous than open-pollinated varieties.

Queen Series is an open-pollinated series that can reach 4 to 6ft tall.

Spirit Series: Spirit Appleblosson has an earlier display of flowers than most Cleome, but fades a bit towards the fall. It reaches a height of about 4 ft. Spirit 'Frost' is white in color and Spirit 'Violeta' is lavender.

'Linde Armstrong' is a cultivar with rosy-pink flowers. It is a compact plant that reaches a height of 12-18 inches, which make it perfect for container plantings. This variety is also thornless and is know for its heat tolerance.

'Helen Campbell' is another cultivar with white flowers on a 4ft plant.

How and where best to plant Cleome? 

This is one annual that benefits from being planted in a mass grouping. 

Older varieties, which can be can be tall and lanky, look great toward the back of a garden. Tall Cleome make a wonderful companions for ornamental grasses.

Cleome also looks great alongside yellow Rudbeckia, Sedum, Verbena bonariensis and Zinnias. 

Here Cleome are planted with pink Astilbe and Coleus.

For me, Cleome seem to have become a bit of a photographic muse. 

This spring, I think I may have to add some plants along the white picket fence 
at the front of the house.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Azaleas and Rhododendrons

Duff and Donna Evers garden in Halifax, N.S

A few years back I came across a very well-dressed couple who were maneuvering a large cart filled to capacity with rhododendrons toward a nursery cash register. 

No doubt they had selected the rhododendrons because their clusters of trumpet-shaped flowers were spectacular, but I had to wonder if they had any idea what they were in for. 

Growing rhododendrons in Southern Ontario is not impossible, but with our hot, dry summers and harsh winters, it is a challenge that is not for the faint of heart. More importantly the soil here is not likely to be the rich, sandy loam rhododendrons and azaleas prefer. Noticeably absent from the couple's cart was anything to amend their soil.

As I watched them take their place in the cash register line up, I couldn't help but adopt the pessimistic view that the future prospects for those mauve rhododendrons was pretty bleak.

I can speak personally to growing rhododendrons without much of a clue. 

Years ago I bought a rather fine looking specimen myself. I made a half-hearted attempt to amend my soil, stood back and hoped it would just do its own thing.

But the rhododendron sulked and dropped its leaves when the summer got dry. Two years later it was so spindly and pathetic I banished it to the back of the yard. There it mocked me by flowering the following spring.

I was beginning to feel hopeful that my rhododendron might actually begin to prosper when the big tree damaged in the ice storm had to be cut down. Hubby was the cleaning up afterward when he came to me with a rather trampled looking shrub in his hand.

"Was this important?" he asked. 

He was holding what was left of my poor little rhodie!  

(Read an article: Ten Ways to Kill a Rhododendron by Marjorie Hancock here.)

The Dalhousie University Agricultural Campus in Truro, N.S.

Those of you who have been following this blog for awhile will know that last summer I visited Nova Scotia. On the east and west coasts of Canada, rhododendrons and azaleas flourish. There is plenty of rain and the soil is the rich, acidic soil that they require to grow well.

Rhododendrons can be grown elsewhere. We just have to work a bit harder to give them what they want.

Site Requirements:

Notes on the Atlantic Rhododendron & Horticultural Society suggest that site selection is a key consideration. If the planting area you are considering is wet at any time during the year, it is not a good option. Like so many plants, rhododendron's hate wet feet. 

How do you test a site's drainage? 

The Society recommends digging a hole and filling it with water. If the water does not drain quickly, select an alternate location.

The Society also warns against planting rhododendrons near foundation walls on the south and west sides of buildings, as they can become hot spots that rhododendrons do not tolerate well. A roof overhang is also an issue, as they can keep vital moisture from getting to you rhododendron.

One final important consideration- choose a site protected from the wind. Get more tips on siting your plants here.

Light Requirements:

What do you think: sun or shade for rhododendrons? 

Most people think shade, but in reality experienced gardeners like my friend Donna Evers advise differently:

"Despite what the books say about growing rhododendrons in shade, we have found that in our garden they do better with sun. They are more compact and have a better bud set."

A general rule of thumb with regards to light requirements is based on leaf size. The larger the leaf, the less sun is required. Small leafed varieties require more sun. Generally speaking most rhododendrons need at least half a day of sun.

The Dalhousie University Agricultural Campus in Truro, N.S.

Soil Requirements:

Rhododendrons and azaleas like well-drained, acidic sandy loam ( pH: 4.8-6.0) with lots of organic matter.

Donna, whose garden you see in many of these pictures, passed on this excellent advice about soil conditions that she got from the late Captain Dick Steele, a well respected Nova Scotian rhododendron breeder:

"At first we didn't feed our plants, but then I asked Captain Dick Steele about fertilizing them and he replied, "You feed your kids, don't you?" On his advice we started broadcasting scant handfuls of an all purpose fertilizer (10, 10, 10) over all the gardens. What an improvement it made! We also apply a layer of shredded oak leaves every year. This has improved the soil immensely. Good soil is where it all starts."

Read more about soil requirements here. Read up on feeding hungry rhododendrons here.

Duff and Donna Evers garden in Halifax, N.S

Duff and Donna Evers garden in Halifax, N.S

Start by purchasing healthy plants. In colder areas of North America, rhododendrons are best planted in early spring. The American Rhododendron Society recommends planting in fall for hot areas of the country.  

Rhododendrons and azaleas are easily damaged or killed when they are planted too deeply. The top of the root ball should be level with the surface of the ground and planting hole should be larger than the root ball. If your soil is not the light, sandy, acid soil that rhododendrons and azaleas prefer, it is critical to amend the soil with organic matter. 

Find more tips on planting here.

Duff and Donna Evers garden in Halifax, N.S

Duff and Donna Evers garden in Halifax, N.S

Duff and Donna Evers garden in Halifax, N.S.


Rhododendrons and azaleas don't need a lot of care once they are properly established. Mulch your plants with pine needles, oak leaves or wood chips to guard against temperature extremes. Mulching also helps to conserve water. 

One great idea is to cut up your tree after Christmas and place the boughs at the base of your rhododendrons. This little bit of added protection will help prevent them from drying out in winter.

Finally, it is best to remove spent flowers as it prevents seed formation and encourages new growth.

Duff and Donna Evers garden in Halifax, N.S

Pruning and moving Rhododendrons:

I asked Donna for a few notes on pruning and potentially moving rhododendrons. I had to laugh at the humour in her reply:

"We haven't done much pruning except to tidy them up by removing dead branches...We do have to do a little editing this coming spring. Things have gotten a little crowded over the past twenty years. Rhodies have a large, but shallow root mass and are relatively easy to move. The size of the rhododendron and the age of the gardener are the determining factors. Our solution is to give the biggest ones to our kids:-)"

Find additional tips on transplanting rhodies and azaleas here.

The Dalhousie University Agricultural Campus in Truro, N.S.

Duff and Donna Evers garden in Halifax, N.S

This is Rhododendron 'Teddy bear' in Donna's garden. The brown indumentum on the underside of the leaves has a soft, furry texture. Donna tells me that, "Gardeners grow it more for the leaf than the bloom." 

Duff and Donna Evers garden in Halifax, N.S

Duff and Donna Evers garden in Halifax, N.S

Insect and Disease Control

It is a best to seek local advice for the control of insects and disease as problems can vary according to region. Nymphs on the undersides of leaves may cause yellow spotting. Root weevils and stem borer are other widespread pests.

Find ways to address insect and disease problems here.

The Dalhousie University Agricultural Campus in Truro, N.S.

So why would someone like me want to try again to grow rhododendrons or azaleas? My pictures answer the question for me. 

They're gorgeous! 

We gardeners learn by trial and error. If you don't succeed the first time, you can always try, try again.