Sunday, April 26, 2009

Why Zones Don't Matter

I was in Creston yesterday and an interesting observation came from the audience. A lady in Kimberly  noted that Annabelle Hydrangeas (Zone 4-5) were so suited to their zone 3 climate that they had gone wild and reseeded all over. 

Compare that to zone 3 Calgary where Annabelle Hydrangeas only grow if you hold your mouth right and live in a sheltered or inner city location. In other words zones are not that important in the big picture or at least our maps are far too vague to be of any real use. What is important is snow cover in winter, soils, moisture and elevation all in combination. Obviously in Kimberly where the snow falls deep and stays - making the skiing there delightful - zones are not really that important as indicators to what will grow there. 

As usual an old gardening axiom - "Zones are important" - has nothing at all to do with achieving success in your garden. This is not the first time zones have been wrong - especially in a climate not actually measured very accurately by anyone. I am thinking of Mary in her zone 2a garden in Beaverlodge Alberta. Clearly she didn't know Hydrangeas were not zone 2 plants and she is quite happily growing them. Moral of the story: Have a look at zones but don't get too hung up on them! Consider soils and soil type, winter conditions and quantity of protective snow as well as elevation which will be an indicator of summer temperatures in the evening. Calgary has little snow in the winter, a high elevation (3,000 - 4,000 feet) and cold evenings in the summer - meanwhile hard winds dry out the soil in both winter and summer. In other words it isn't really a zone 3 or anything like it. They just don't measure zones  carefully enough to use them to predict much of anything. 

If you are new to gardening tour other gardens in your area and make a note of what grows. Then try to grow plants of similar type as you expand your palette. Join a garden club and see what the members of that club are growing and work from there. When it comes to zones you just have to fur-ged-a-bod-it.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Creston in Bloom!

I have just arrived in Creston to give a presentation to the local garden club. This is one beautiful mountain town in British Columbia and it is in early spring bloom.  The daffodils and forsythia (shown above) are flowering like crazy but the  Cherries are a few weeks behind. Does that mean cherry eating season will be delayed as well?  Hope the talk goes well. Gotta run. 

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Snow in April - Not too unusual

Yes- while I was up in Beaverlodge speaking to the fabulous garden club it was snowing back home in Calgary. This - of course- after I put out my pansy wreath the night before (when it was plus 20 C). Oh well, even with the snow, it was only minus 8 C according to my i-phone-  usually pansies can tolerate this. Okay - it's true, I usually  suggest hardening off Pansies before plunking them out in minus 8 but I was in Beaverlodge! What can I say? And just in case you have never been to Beaverlodge - the town - I am not speaking about visiting a little rodent home but a real live town west of Grand Prairie. And the people there were great! Thanks for the hospitality.

See photo above of pansy wreath and below that a photo of the first hospital in Beaverlodge.  Expect to see future photos of thriving pansies!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Live on CBC Radio for another season

If you live in Alberta you can check out and participate in the CBC  radio phone-in show about gardening. 

I start again this friday at 1:30 PM MST and can be listened to or spoken with by calling the show directly. In Calgary listen to AM 1010 or FM 99.1 for details but to find where you can hear it check out CBC radio on-line for local channel listings within Alberta.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Heat Wave - Pansies Planted

I heard Des Kennedy - a garden writer and humorist from Denman Island in British Columbia - give a talk last week so I thought I would include a little quote from his book, "Crazy About Gardening".  His definition of  a gardener:
"A dreamer and schemer. A paradise seeker. An eternal optimist, convinced that perfection is only one rose bush move away."

On that happy note I bought a rose bush and a few pansies in Medicine Hat after I gave a talk there last weekend and even though I heard our low temperature next week is going to be minus 11 degrees Celcius, I planted the whole works outside tonight.  A dreamer, and schemer and paradise seeker? Or perhaps just a gardener - who like a poker player measuring the odds - wanted to get her hands dirty and the season underway in one fell swoop.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Love That Fish Compost!

Where ever you live there is bound to be great compost but if you live on the coast you are in for a treat.  Fish compost- piled high and steamy hot just ripe for spreading - may be available close to you!

I say this knowing full well most people buy their soils and compost in the tiny cubic foot bags and pay about $3.00-$5.00 per bag. This is such a waste of plastic (27 bags per cubic yard is a lot of hauling and cutting open of bags and general hassle). It is also a waste of money. While the tiny bags need to be individually opened and then disposed of, the bulk compost is  available by the cubic yard from a local "bulk landscape supplier" outlet for $50.00 per yard.  The first thing I did when I arrived at our "beach" house was to google bulk landscape suppliers. I wanted to go look at the mulch available. 

I was surprised and delighted by the appearance of the fish compost available on Vancouver Island- it is made with fish parts mixed with bark mulch and the finished product is screeened and black and weed free. Unlike composts made with manure, the fish compost is probably free of herbicides as well. I immediately spread it by wheelbarrow loads over  my lawn. I  tossed shovel loads off the wheelbarrow and began raking it in. I used a fan rake to make sure it wasn't in big clumps or piles on the lawn - this would cause random green sprouts everywhere. All in all I spread it about 50 mm or 1/2 cm deep (about 1/4").

My point is simple. Wherever you live you can call or google a bulk landscape supplier and get yourself some wholesome compost. 

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Andrea - New Gardener waiting to bloom!

Hi Andrea-
Thanks for coming to my talk to the U of A Alumni. What a great group! I am always excited to meet new gardeners and I see you are full of questions .  If I can clarify/abbreviate  your e-mail, you have inherited a garden with mixed trees, shrubs, flowers and vegetables. Right now your immediate questions are about pruning your fruits and improving your vegetable area and compost. Your zucchini failed to bloom last year and you added manure to the vegetables and are now worried about the quality of that manure.

First things first. Do not trim your Saskatoons or Nanking cherries until after they bloom and start to leaf out. This is still over a month to six weeks away in Alberta. Some people do like to prune in the winter but why cut off all the flowers and potential fruit just a few short weeks before they pop out? Instead, prune in June... take a course or look at a book about pruning because this is too big a topic to be covered here. I usually minimize pruning because plants that are rarely pruned almost always do better.

Manure can be a problem when added to the vegetable garden because it often carries herbicide residues but it is easy to test for this at home. Take a few samples of the soil - one from each of your five beds - and try potting up a few fast growing seeds such as peas or sunflowers in each sample. If the growth is twisted or abnormal, you do have herbicides present. If the plants grow normally everything is fine so go ahead and plant.

You mentioned you added rhubarb to your compost. This is no problem unless you are planning to eat your compost (not advised). I think you are worried because you have heard rhubarb leaves are poisonous to people but this is no problem for compost!

If your zucchini are not blooming you may be low on light. Most vegetables need sun to bloom - at least four or five hours a day. If you don't have this much light you may have to prune or remove some larger trees or grow leafy vegetables instead of fruiting vegetables. Try leaf lettuce, spinach or swiss chard if light levels are low. 

Daffodils in the Ditch

Okay- yellow is a common weed colour - dandelions in Alberta and Daffodils? on Vancouver Island. Saw these daffodils growing in the ditch this week and they turned out to be one of many clumps in full bloom -and fully naturalized - in the ditches along the highway. Weeds are certainly in the eye of the beholder.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Angsting Over Spring

Yes- I was tired of waiting for spring to come to me so I have gone to spring. Spring is in full bloom here on the west coast. And, no, I am not forgetting about all those lovely U of A alumni and their many questions. I will be getting to those shortly under the various headings their questions posed but right now I am basking in the sun and  have been spending time weeding which probably seems boring and dull, but when you have left snow drifts behind it is fabulous even to be touching soil again. 

The rage on the west coast is fish compost. Yes we can get this everywhere thanks to bagging and shipping but here - on the west coast - it comes in bulk and we are having some delivered today! Yahoo - six yards of dead fish arriving this afternoon. Can't wait.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Zinnia Seeds up in two days!

What a difference a warm floor makes! And I am not just talking about the way it feels when you walk on it in your bare feet early in the morning! 

Seeds planted on the weekend (March 28) were watered and placed on the warm floor in the basement to help them germinate. I was hoping for seven days before germination so that I could bring them upstairs and put them under the lights before I head off to the Island on the weekend. These little zinnias were up in two days! The lettuce and basil were up in three. If you haven't got a warm floor buy a heating pad to start seeds- it always amazes me how fast seeds germinate with bottom heat.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Soil Testing May be a Scam

We've all heard of internet scams but how about soil test scams? It's hard to imagine something as well known and long recognized as a basic soil test could be a waste of money and time for a home gardener.  Heide Hermary debunks soil tests for Organic home gardeners in her e-book "Soil Testing for Organic Gardeners" (free downloads on the Society for Organic Urban Land Care (SOUL) web page). 

While I have been dissing soil tests for home gardeners for years in favour of actually looking at both the soil and the plant health, this is the first time I have read a piece sympathetic to my views. Good job Heide - I couldn't have said it any clearer or better.