Friday, December 18, 2009

Things to do in the December garden

'A garden really lives only insofar
As it is an expression of faith,
The embodiment of hope,
And a song of praise.'
- Russell Page (1905-1985), British landscape artist and garden designer

  • complete planting spring-flowering bulbs this month (if not done by November).
  • supply house plants with extra humidity by grouping plants together & setting pots on beds of damp pebbles in leakproof trays.
  • slip small packets of seeds gathered from special plants in the garden into Christmas cards you send to gardening friends & family.
  • make a start on flower & vegetable seed orders. Keep a record of what has been ordered & note each item's proposed site in the garden.
  • have mowers & power garden equipment serviced (if not done by November).
  • make home-made gifts & gift baskets using herbal vinegars, oils, jams & jellies, cutneys & preserves.
  • check stored fruits & vegetables & remove any that are spoiling.
  • close to Christmas, gather greenery to decorate the house for the holidays. Clip shoots of needle-bearing & berried broad-leaved evergreen plants & gather deciduous shrub branches that have berries & colourful bark.
  • as soon as seed orders arrive in the mail, file seed packets according to their time of sowing & store the packets in a dry, dark, cool place.

    Sunday, December 13, 2009

    Let's Start Gardening!

    Today I received my seeds for next year's gardening projects! Included with the seeds are 2 new books that I dearly want to start reading right this minute, but will have to hold off for a short time while other things must be done before the holidays.

    Firstly, the seeds:
    Each year, I try to find new & interesting herbs to grow along with my more traditional ones. This year I will be adding 3 medicinal herbs (Valerian, Rue & Lemon Bergamot) to the gardens.

    Valerian is a hardy perennial growing to about 5 feet. The tiny, fragrant flowers are pink, white or lavender. Valerian flowers from late May through August. Widely used to allay pain, nervous unrest, migraine and insomnia.

    Rue is a lovely perennial for rock garden and unfenced areas. It grow 2-3 feet high, has yellow blossoms and grey-green foliage which can be used sparingly as a bitter spice. Also used in the treatment of rheumatism and internal parasites.

    Lemon Bergamot grows 3 feet tall with mauve flowers that have a very long bloom period. Excellent bee plant. Edible leaves are an excellent addition to salads and make a refreshing tea, hot or cold.

    Not your traditional culinary herbs, but I love adding different flavours to my food. And no - I have no idea where they will go, but I've got a few months to figure that out!

    I have also found yellow lavender, which is supposed to germinate well. The full, very bushy plants are a bright light green and the flowers are yellow. The scent has citrus overtones with a hint of spicy lavender. I'm intrigued by the thought of yellow blossoms as I have seen many varieties of purple, blue & even white... but yellow? Will blend in very well with my chosen colour themes.

    I've also decided to try something quite new - to my gardening & to my way of eating. I got the Zero Mile Diet seed kit which contains some fascinating food seeds. Included are: Wren's Abruzzi Ry, Purple Barley, Salt Spring Oats, Red Fife Wheat, Golden Flax, Multi-hued Quinoa, Amaranth, a Heritage Bean mix, Carlin Soup Peas, Winnifred's Garbanzo, Russian Kale, Ardwyna Paste Tomato and a 20 lettuce blend.

    I'm going to be doing a lot of research & reading this winter about all these grains, seeds & beans as I generally don't eat very many of them. But then again, after the moderate success of certain vegetables from my gardens & finding their flavour 10 times better than store-bought produce, I'm quite willing to try anything in my gardens if the flavour is that more improved!

    The books:

    From Seed to Table - a practical guide to eating and growing green by Janette Haase.
    Just flipping through the book quickly when I opened my package has made me realize just how unorganized I am with my approach to gardening. She has organized the book into each month & discusses what's in the garden available for harvest & how to combine these fresh foods with items harvested & stored previously. There are planning stages for the gardens & menus & recipes. I'm just itching to read this book cover to cover right this minute!

    My second book is another 'break through' in my gardening library. I've been searching for books specific to the West Coast of Canada & have found what looks to be a great teaching tool for me. Year-Around Harvest - Winter Gardening on the Coast, by Linda A. Gilkeson. This just might be the 'how-to' manual I've been needing these last 7 years since taking up gardening on the coast. I've got so much to 'unlearn' still from what I grew up learning about in Ontario...

    So, I will need to go out now & buy a proper notebook to start writing down all my plans & keep better record of what I'm doing right and wrong in the garden.... well, after I read my books...

    Friday, December 11, 2009

    Time to Start Planning with Seeds

    When the sun shines like it has for the past week, thoughts turn towards the gardens. I can't help it. I just want to get outside & get my hands dirty! I see all the potential in my soil & the lay of the land & one way to help ease these winter garden anxieties is to read through seed catalogues.

    I haven't yet done my year-end review of what was a success and what utterly failed last summer, but I've already got some wonderful ideas for what I want to experiment with this coming season.

    But first - 'you can't grow vital food without good seed.' Dan Jason from Salt Spring Seeds. Makes sense, but when I really started to think about it, it hit home a little bit harder. I was exploring some of his articles on his website that I just recently stumbled across; Salt Spring Seeds & he was discussing how small seed producers are being bought up by large seed corporations, which in turn, due to pressures of producing, tend to loose the unique qualities of the small seed producers & introduce modified seeds. The seeds that these large corporations sell are often re-packaged & not regionally acclimatized for the many variations of growing zones within its service area.

    This is what I've been thinking about for a while now. I do recall some of the seeds I planted in the spring were from as far away as Germany & other European countries. It didn't really make sense to me to try to grow these here in Bamfield mainly because we have some rather harsh characteristics in our growing climate.

    We are practically at sea level, right on the ocean & subject to the whims of Mother Nature with strong ocean breezes, lots of salt in the air & in the rain. The summer temperatures really don't heat up like they do in the prime growing zones of Canada (we rarely get over 25 degrees in the summer - although the last 2 summers have been rather hot). And, just when you think you might have figured it all out, the fog rolls into town in August, cooling down the temperatures drastically & reducing the sun light plants so dearly need at this time of year to a few short hours at mid-day when the fog burns off, only to come flowing back into town again. Greenhouses are a necessity in this town & I really need to build a proper one...

    But, if I were to purchase seeds from producers right here on the coast, who have spent the last few years struggling through the same issues I now face, wouldn't their seeds have a better chance at surviving & thriving? That's what I'm thinking!

    So, no more seeds from Veseys & no more seeds from Stokes or some of those other big companies that send me their beautiful glossy colour catalogues at this time of year for me to drool over & get so excited about. I will now use them as reference material - find out what's out there in the world of seeds & how to grow these plants, be they edible or decorative. And I won't get caught up in the glamour of something 'new' because in my gardens, I've already found that the 'new & improved' tend to become the harrassed - either they give up & die or they revert back to their more 'primative' state & loose all that 'new & improved'ness...

    So, West Coast Seeds, based out of Vancouver, BC, is one of my choices and I've already made my first seed purchase of the year from Salt Spring Seeds - plus some new gardening reading material, which I will share with you once it arrives on my doorstep. I'm very excited about this purchase - some new plants I've never tried, or honestly, thought to try before!

    Thursday, December 10, 2009

    Gladiola Explosion

    I’m a sucker for plants or bulbs that are out of season & on sale. I’ve purchases many a strange & mysterious bulb, put it in the ground months after it should have been there & then promptly lost the information that went along with them. At some point either that year or the following year, I find a mystery plant or flower & have to do a massive amount of research to figure out what it is!

    Well, I found a bag of gladiola corms for sale this spring. A ridiculous amount for really cheap! I was in need of a tall plant in the back of a new flower bed along side my lower deck & these fit the bill.

    But as I started researching how to grow & care for glads, I thought I might have made a huge mistake! They seem to be really picky & difficult to make look ‘pretty’ in a flower bed. I have another such plant out in my yard – just in some random spot. Those are hollyhocks with problems of their own & they actually seem to be doing quite well. I love them!

    But glads may need tying up or they keel over because of heavy blooms. They suffer from bugs that strip out the leaves & flower petals. They need to be dug up in the fall & over-wintered somewhere dry. They multiply like crazy & need dividing almost every year. Really – the list goes on & it’s much more complex than I’m letting on. I don’t like to get too technical about my plants – I will learn all I can about how to care for them, but if it’s something I don’t have time for or I think I can get away without doing, than I will give it a try!

    So, when I planted these little dried up corms, I did it in 2 beds – well, they are practically on top of each other on the west side of the house. One group went into a new bed my dad helped me make in the spring & the other group went into a deck box on the deck right behind the bed. Interesting the differences between the 2 groups.

    Glads really do like sunshine. The lower group did quite well – still needed to be tied up & I didn’t do a very good job of that this year (mostly because I also had sweet peas growing all over the place & they leaned on the glads, which in turn leaned on the calendula, which in turn shaded out the lavender & alyssium). I’ve made my notes on this bed & will see what I can do next spring to rectify a few mistakes (number one mistake: planting sweet peas in that spot!). But I left the glads alone in that bed – just cut them back.

    The deck box also had sweet peas & a few mystery plants growing up & out between the spindles in the railing. This spot was a cacophony of colour but a horrendous mess! The glads all tried to grow out through the railing & I did get some later blooming flowers, but thought it might be to my advantage to pull these corms out for the winter & get some hostas growing in there next year (seeing as it got very little actual sunlight). By the time I got around to pulling up the corms, the soil around them all was very soggy & the stalks were very soft. I managed to get only about half out of the box.

    What a surprise! The corms were big & healthy & had many little cormlettes growing off the sides – in some cases a very large one that might give me flowers next year. So, I brought them all inside, let them dry for a few days & then cleaned them off. I am storing the little cormlettes by themselves & will plant them in pots in the spring & have them in an out of the way spot to develop for the year.

    What I want to see in the spring is: is it necessary for me to pull out the glads every fall? Will they drown in our rainy winters & do they need to be cleaned up/divided every year? How will my new little babies do with over-wintering & growing for a season? Will I become the gladiola queen of Bamfield & have to start selling (or giving them away) in a few years in order not to be overwhelmed?

    Maybe next year I’ll mark out the colours better so that if I do want more of the reds & fewer of the pinks, I’ll know which ones to divide & spread around & which ones to give away to my neighbours…

    Tuesday, December 8, 2009

    Overwintering Geraniums

    I decided my decks needed some hanging baskets, so 2 years ago, I found some lovely wooden ones & then had to figure out what went in them & how to keep them alive. I have a rather harsh take on my gardens - if it needs watering every day, it just might not work out... But hanging baskets... that's another garden-being altogether! Purely decorative - so far - which means that I must tend them religiously.

    A typical plant that goes into baskets of all sorts, are the geraniums. I won't get into the technical aspect of all the different varieties, but suffice to say, I pick red ones every time. I do have some sort of theme for my flowering plants - red, yellow & white. Still working on that...

    But the geraniums - not a plant I liked at all - did really well! They actually flowered right through the fall & until the heavy frost killed them all, I thought I might be able to keep them for next year. Lesson learned...

    So this year, I did buy the cheapest, smallest ones I could find - but early. They were such a lovely contrast - bright red flowers that lasted a long time & dark green leaves with a ring of almost black. I really am going to have to start recording which varieties I purchase!

    In the fall, I decided that I would try a little experiment: Overwintering my Geraniums.

    This involved much research – both on the internet & in asking all my neighbours who successfully over-winter their geraniums. I feel that the best advice out there comes from those who live near-by & have been doing it for years with moderate success.

    So, I found myself, one wonderfully sunny afternoon taking down my hanging baskets – thankfully, I’ve only got 3 on the lower deck & one on the upper deck (which still needs to be taken down…). I trimmed the plants back, some of which still had flower buds on them, and dug them carefully out of the soil. The other plants in the hanging basket – some lovely fushias, were transplanted into a few bare spots in some of my new beds in the hopes they would flower for a while longer & maybe even survive the winter. I’ll keep my eye on them…

    I kept the extra cuttings because I was also going to try to get them to root up, in case the over-wintering of the main plant didn’t work. I was told to dig up, trim back & dry off the main plants. Store them in a paper bag in a cool, dry, semi-dark place (garage would be perfect, but I don’t have one, so the laundry room will have to do). Then in February, pot them up & water them & see what has survived. I would like to think there is a way to tell before potting them up if they have survived or not – again, will have to research that question.

    The cuttings have gone through a bit of a die-back stage. I’ve already lost half of my cuttings, maybe because I didn’t cover them or maybe because they were overwatered & the roots/stalks rotted, or maybe they just haven’t gotten enough light because of the dark rain cloud we’ve been under for the last month. If I can get just a couple of cuttings to root up, I think it will be a moderate success.

    I also have scented geraniums that I wanted to over-winter, but didn’t really want to go through the whole process as I did with the others. So, a second experiment is in place. I have them down in my laundry room on top of a freezer. They don’t get a whole lot of light & I’ve stopped watering them. They were pruned back hard when I brought them in & then after a month or so, I noticed they had sprouted long, spindley pale shoots so these got pruned back too. I decided at this time to take some cuttings & root them up as I had lost half of my red geranium cuttings by this time.

    They are also sitting in my front window sill trying to benefit from the November sunshine (which is nonexistent this year with all this rain). By the time I finally got around to writing this, December had moved in & with it, sunshine! But it's freezing outside -'s so dry now after a full week of sun that it no longer frosts in the mornings. I'm glad I hauled in the geraniums early this year...

    February is quickly approaching when I shall then pot up the surviving cuttings, pot up the red geraniums & start up my grow lights on a timer & give them all some water & a very small dose of fertilizer. Hopefully by April, I will have some geraniums ready to put back outside!

    Thursday, December 3, 2009

    A Touch of Frost

    It was a beautiful frosty morning today & I just had to get outside to take some of the first frost photos. I have heard that this next week (or 2 or 4?) just might be pretty darn cold - which for Bamfield is anything in the 'minus degree' zone! We are just grateful for the sunshine right now!

    The sun shining through my stevia plants was very nice - but we shall see how these poor plants react to being bitten by the frost for the rest of the winter. I didn't dig them up this year or even take any cuttings (! for shame!). The aren't that hardy (according to the place I purchased them), but I'm willing to subject all my plants to extremes to see what will live & what will die, knowing that my care during the summer is not that reliable.
    I'm still not used to the lack of autumn colour here on the coast. Every year I get my mom to send me autumn photos from Ontario, just so I can see the changes that are gradual instead of the instant dead & brown look I get out my back door. This year I've noticed that the astilbe (right) and spirea & ferns across the road lingered a bit longer & were rather nice shades of rust & red instead of brown. Maybe I just have to look a little closer...

    My garden still has carrots, beets, some onions & miscellaneous herbs. I shall have to get in there & see if they are still edible.

    The kale plants are still going strong. I've had to make the decision that I cannot grow kale as an edible vegetable anymore. It upsets my digestive system & my husband just plain doesn't like it! But I will start to explore the decorative varieties of kale & probably keep one or two of the edible plants - just in case. They will be grown outside the veggie patch & tucked in the other beds as fillers.

    Believe it or not, I found some raspberries still clinging to the canes! I had a wonderful second harvest this year through October & was too busy in November to get out to pick the rest. I had thought the birds would have eaten them all by now!
    I cut back my bronze fennel fern back in October once the seeds had been gathered. I've noticed that the plants are putting forth some new growth already & what a treat to have a little nip of fresh fennel during these winter days! Such flavour...

    Here's my Autumn Joy sedum - I didn't cut it back this fall because I wanted a bit of texture in the gardens - vertical & colour. But with all the rain, the stalks are starting to rot & the plant's spent blooms are drooping rather pathetically. I can see that it also is sending up new shoots for next year's blooms. Nice to see a bit of green in all that frosty mess.

    My little Hens & Chicks look so precious with the frost edging! These things spread like wild fire around my beds & I'm always pulling up a big mother hen to reposition the chicks in holes or as edging in pots. Another one of my plants that loves the neglect!
    My deck boxes are a continual surprise throughout the winter months. The calendula do tend to get a bit scraggly, but being in southern exposure, they keep warm enough to bloom throughout the year! I've also put in some first year rosemary seedlings I started from seed this year - as my cuttings didn't work out - and there's still fresh parley & sage.
    Along the front edge of the deck, just behind our glass, is another deck box with daisies. This flower decided to bloom in late October & is still hanging on.
    Well, that's how I started my day today - 8:30 a.m. & ready to play in my winter gardens!

    Wednesday, December 2, 2009

    Fall Chores

    This fall season seems to be flying by, leaving me with more & more things unfinished. Most people think I’m overly-organized, especially when they see my to-do lists scattered everywhere. Well, they aren’t scattered, more they are in strategic places where I will see them when I stop for a moment.

    My garden to-do list was extensive this year. I needed help in organizing myself & creating the list. So I turned to one of my favourite sources for inspiration & information: Canadian Gardening ( They have terrific to-do lists for each season & they are quick & easy to print out & have on hand. Along with their list, I included a multitude of items specific to my gardens (some of which still needs to be done!).

    Gardens in Bamfield never really go to sleep for the winter. There are always things in the stages of dying or rotting or suddenly sprouting some new leaves when the sun shines on them. I have thrown out my lists for the fall but since today was a sunny warm day (even though there are still pockets of frost across the road in the deep shade) I looked out at the gardens & saw that I'm not yet finished my chores...

    I wanted to try a bit of winter texture this year & thought my Autumn Joy sedum would look lovely all winter long - especially when the heavier frosts come. But, that particular plant is in a rather soggy spot & the flowers are starting to rot instead of dry. Then I looked a little more closely at the plant & saw that it is starting to send out new shoots for next year's flowers! Should I get in there & cut down the rotting, faded blossoms??

    Well, whatever is required, I will probably go mucking out in the gardens in the next couple of days - reassess the rain damage, prune back a few herb shrubs, dead-head my calendula (which are still flowering up on my deck!) & start writing up my Spring To-Do list...