We all know now that gardens and gardening enhance the wellbeing and happiness of people. That includes enjoying not only the beauty and the fruits of gardens, but also the satisfying work that creates this bounty These basic general tips and reminders reflect only my personal approach and ideas about what is most important in successful gardening. These brief suggestions can be supplemented by the wealth of free information available on the internet and elsewhere.
Table of contents
Most important is to nurture your soil. Try to avoid stepping on it, especially when wet; roots need oxygen and squishing out the air spaces is bad! Keep it covered with mulch or ground cover plants, not left exposed to the pounding rain and temperature extremes. (Google no-till method of gardening.)
Add compost or other organic material periodically to improve water retention, aeration and provide some nutrients.
Mulch on perennial or annual garden beds should be no more than 5-7 cm deep, as a rule, though some veggie growers like to use special techniques involving deep mulches. Apply on ground that is moist, and water afterward if dry. Keep it a few cm away from the crowns of plants. Your choice of mulch type depends on your purposes, its availability to you, and price.
You’ve heard it before, probably: a good deep soak once or twice a week is better than a sprinkling every day. That’s true for lawns and garden beds, but annual containers, depending on size and weather, may need water every day. How we water is important. I prefer to use a long wand with an adjustable nozzle, on a gentle shower setting, going back and forth, letting it sink in. Avoid blasting a strong jet of water onto the ground surface.
Once established in the ground, most perennials and shrubs don’t need much food. Ideally, leave an organic mulch (such as composted pine bark mulch or leaf mold) in place and spread some compost occasionally. If problems persist, there may be a deficiency of some nutrient, which you can usually add. Vegetables and most annuals do need food; annuals in containers, several times in the season. Native plants don’t need extra food as a rule. Do not fertilize plants, e.g. roses, after mid-August.
Yes, do it if you can – good for the environment, the economy and your garden. Figure out the best solution for your space, as there are many ways of composting. Even a small one can produce useful compost if maintained right – or try vermicomposting.
Find out about them; weigh quality vs price. Consider their level of usage (every day or once a year). Google for cool tool sites, with lists and charts and images. Ergonomic or just well-designed tools are more fun to use and easier on the body. Dollar store tools may do the job for certain tasks.
The outdoor exercise is great, but be careful not to overdo it, as gardening injuries can be as bad as sports injuries. Change tasks every hour at least, so that you are using different muscles, and not staying in one position. Stretch a little (calves, hamstrings, shoulders, back,) before and after, and during a long session. Use tools suited to your strength and size. Learn your limits – what you can do, and what you shouldn’t do, and stop before it hurts.
Do not use poisonous chemicals, even if you can find them. Avoid breathing in fine dusty particles of peat moss and supplements like MYKE. Peat moss, vermiculite, and coir should be dampened before using, and gloves worn. Dried-out peat moss in a pot in the sun can spontaneously combust – rare, but it happens!
STAY OFF the grass and garden beds until they are thawed and quite well dried out. We are all anxious to get out (especially this year!) and do the clean-up, but compacting saturated soil and possibly ripping tender shoots can do more harm than good. Also, many beneficial insects and their eggs are still sheltering there, and may not be ready to venture into the wide world just yet. I like to use a plastic “shrub rake” to gently pull out the top layer of matted leaves and debris; the bottom layer can usually be left to decompose and enrich the soil.
Ecologically sound gardening
There’s wildlife in nature, and then there’s wildlife in your garden, quite a different thing! Most of us have issues with rabbit, vole, groundhog, deer, or squirrel; but to focus on the positive, we can also have beneficial insects, butterflies, toads, birds, and so on. We just need to provide habitat for them, with water, shelter and food, a bird feeder, if possible. Native perennials and shrubs, in particular, attract pollinators and provide resilience and reliable beauty in tough times.
Designing and Planning
Balance expectations with reality. The brilliantly-colored blooms in photos in magazines and on labels may not be achievable in your garden – at least for a while! Look around your neighbourhood for ideas and have patience as your garden matures. Start small, for new gardens. Don’t take on too much, or overplant to fill every cm of space (Things can grow faster than you might imagine.)
BALANCE hardscaping with soft plantings. When planning property use, allow some space for possible future needs; e.g. don’t make doorway or gate or path so small you can’t get a wheelbarrow (or wheelchair) through. Be aware of good water management; any drainage issues should be fixed so that the rainwater and snowmelt goes where it is useful, and not all into the storm sewer. The City of Ottawa (Environmental Programs, Planning, Infrastructure and Economic Development) is working with the Envirocentre to promote the creation of rain gardens, which could become even more useful in future extreme storms.
Push the Envelope
“PUSHING THE ENVELOPE” If you want to try some less common, less hardy plants for here, go ahead, experiment – that’s one of the most enjoyable things to do! The Ottawa area, once zone 4, is now considered zone 5/ 5a. However, unless you have lots of space and/or funds, better not to experiment with larger woody plants, such as expensive trees; do the research to make sure you’re putting them in spots where they should flourish. Try different annuals instead of the same red pelargoniums every year.
Front Yard Focus
DO focus on your FRONT YARD or balcony, as well as on private spaces. Neighbours really enjoy watching the changes over the season, and will reward you with praise for your efforts.
Use larger containers where possible. To save planting medium, put clean, empty, capped plastic juice or similar bottles in the bottom, but be careful not to leave air pockets or holes around them, into which the roots will grow and die. Use mulch to slow evaporation, and remember that the sun heats up the sides of containers and thus the roots can dry out fast. Help to frustrate squirrels and chipmunks by putting a layer of small stones (ideally, flattish, a few cm in size, not pea stone) around the individual plants, on top of the mulch. Feed regularly when watering, or a couple of times a season with slow-release fertilizer.
Shopping for Annuals
Look for smaller plants with sturdy, healthy stems and perhaps buds, but not necessarily a mass of lush overflowing blooms which won’t last and will need to be cut back at some point. Protect purchases until you can plant them; check daily, note how much water they drink, keep in shade if possible. Many annuals may be easily grown from seed.
Enjoy your garden, whether in the ground or in pots, by taking a daily walk around when possible. You can appreciate all the changes and see what needs doing next. Tasks like pruning and mulching are best done at the right time. Taking action to suppress a pest or disease problem discovered early, saves time and more damage. The daily visit is also a good chance to note items to include in the garden records or journal.
Keeping some sort of record will be invaluable when making decisions in future. At the most basic level, keep all receipts and labels together. However, noting when and where you planted things is pretty basic too. Even better, get a gardening journal or just use a notebook or digital file to note bloom times, weather, the growth and demise of plants, etc. Even a few plants in pots are worth celebrating, doesn’t have to be a large garden.
Finally, cultivate PATIENCE: Newly-installed plants need time to establish their roots, and need extra water and weeding for the first while, especially trees. If your garden disappoints this year, next year and the years after will be better as it matures.
Some references: Local horticultural and gardening groups
www.AWaytoGarden.com is a superb newsletter full of useful information.
From Seed to Table by Janette Haase, print This book gives you a comprehensive month by month guide for a small veggie garden, with nice simple recipes for the fresh produce.
Master Gardeners of Ottawa Carleton: MGOC List of Websites and Education Materials:
MGOC Articles: http://www.mgottawa.ca/ARTICLES.php
MGOC Trowel Talk: http://www.mgottawa.ca/Trowel_Talk.php
Master Gardeners of Ontario: http://www.mgoi.ca/
Ontario Horticultural Association (MGOC is partnered with OHA): http://www.gardenontario.org/index.php
City of Ottawa “Healthy Lawns, Trees and Gardens Naturally”: http://ottawa.ca/env_water/tlg/lawn_garden/index_en.html
Friends of the Central Experimental Farm, Ottawa: http://friendsofthefarm.ca
Fletcher Wildlife Garden, Ottawa: http://www.ofnc.ca/fletcher.php
Canadian Organic Growers – Ottawa link: http://www.cog.ca/chapters/ottawa/
Just Food Ottawa: http://www.justfood.ca
Articles in Lee Valley Newsletter: http://www.leevalley.com/home/Articles.aspx?c=1&action=33
Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs: http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/index.html
Weed Identification: http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/crops/facts/ontweeds/weedgal.htm
Ontario’s Cosmetic Pesticides Ban. What homeowners and gardeners need to know: http://www.ene.gov.on.ca/en/land/pesticides/
Landscape Ontario: www.landscapeontario.com
Landscape Ontario Guidelines: http://www.horttrades.com/c?c=951
Insect Collection – University of Guelph: https://www.uoguelph.ca/debu/intro.htm
Wild About Gardening – Canadian Wildlife Federation: http://www.wildaboutgardening.org/
Poisonous plants – Government of Canada: http://www.cbif.gc.ca/pls/pp/ppack.html_doc?p_type=434&p_x=px
Hosta Virus Information: http://www.torontogardens.com/2010/05/warning-hosta-virus-x.html/
Ontario Trees and Shrubs: http://ontariotrees.com/id/howtoid.php
Josie Pazdzior is a Master Gardener living and enjoying her gardens in Ottawa.